Nov 21, 2023 - Technology

What OpenAI's board was thinking


Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

The OpenAI board's radio silence on its specific reasons for firing Sam Altman as CEO has invited speculation, including the possibility of a clash over the pace of AI development or a conflict over another technical breakthrough.

Yes, but: Their reasoning was actually more personal, according to a person familiar with the board's thinking: They had growing doubts they could trust Altman.

Details: According to this source:

  • There was no one incident that precipitated Altman's ouster, but rather a growing sense by the board's majority that they couldn't trust that Altman was being fully candid.
  • Although there wasn't some massive recent leap in AI capability that precipitated the move, the board feels its primary job is safely developing ever more capable technology and felt it couldn't fulfill that mission if it couldn't trust what Altman was telling them.
  • The board expected an external campaign to resist the move, but didn't anticipate the near-unanimity with which employees objected.

The twist: These explanations track with the statement the board issued when it ousted Altman last Friday.

  • An internal memo leaked Saturday also declared that Altman's firing was not the result of "malfeasance or anything related to our financial, business, safety, or security/privacy practices" but rather a "breakdown in communications between Sam Altman and the board."

But many observers assumed there had to be a bigger reason to fire the CEO of a company that was driving one of the biggest waves of tech transformation the industry has seen in recent years.

  • "Mr. Altman's departure follows a deliberative review process by the board, which concluded that he was not consistently candid in his communications with the board, hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities," the board's statement bluntly declared. "The board no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI."
  • In the corporate world, departing executives are usually given at least faint praise, silence or euphemistic explanations like "spending more time with their family."

The big picture: The board has faced widespread condemnation, particularly from investors and venture capitalists, for both its decision and how it was handled.

  • Y Combinator founder Paul Graham referred to its members as "misbehaving children."

Go deeper: OpenAI chaos: A timeline of firings, interim CEOs, re-hirings and other twists

Go deeper