Updated Nov 22, 2023 - Technology

Sam Altman to return as OpenAI CEO

headshot
Photo Illustration of Sam Altman with the openai logo

Photo Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

OpenAI said late Tuesday that it had reached a deal in principle for Sam Altman to return as CEO, with a new board chaired by former Salesforce co-CEO Bret Taylor.

Why it matters: The move appears to resolve the roller-coaster drama that began Friday when OpenAI announced that its non-profit board had voted to remove Altman.

Details: The new board will also include former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and current board member Adam D'Angelo, co-founder of Quora.

  • With the move, independent directors Tasha McCauley and Helen Toner will leave the board, as will Ilya Sutskever, OpenAI's chief scientist.
  • Greg Brockman, OpenAI's board chair and president until Friday, said he will return to the company as well.

Of note: The agreement includes a plan for an independent investigation into the events that led up to Altman's original ouster, according to a source familiar with the matter.

Between the lines: At first blush, the outcome appears to be a total victory for Altman, but outgoing board members didn't walk away from the negotiations empty-handed, according to a source familiar with their thinking.

  • With D'Angelo joining the new board, they keep one seat.

Catch up quick: OpenAI's non-profit board stunned the tech world Friday with the announcement that it had fired Altman for not being "consistently candid in his communications" and CTO Mira Murati would step in as interim CEO.

  • The board later clarified that there was no "malfeasance" involved but never provided a detailed account of its reasons for the firing.
  • On Sunday Microsoft and Altman announced that he — along with his ally Greg Brockman, OpenAI's former board chair and president, who quit after Altman's firing — would be joining the tech giant, which is a close partner and major investor in OpenAI.
  • Monday morning, an open letter signed by hundreds of Open AI's 750+ employees demanded that the company's board resign or they would quit. By the end of the day, the letter had picked up signatures from nearly every employee — including Sutskever, who'd originally supported Altman's firing.
  • Also Monday, OpenAI said it had a new interim CEO — Twitch co-founder Emmett Shear.

Our thought bubble: The key moment in the company's four-day crisis appeared to have been the Monday morning publication of the open letter, which had more than 700 signatures by the end of the day, representing virtually everyone at the company.

  • It was hard to imagine how the existing board could prevail if the entire workforce — including some of AI's brightest minds — walked out the door.
  • As Axios reported, the board expected Altman to launch a campaign to return but didn't foresee the degree to which employees would line up behind him.

The big picture: OpenAI was founded as a nonprofit with the mission of creating advanced AI in a way that benefits humanity. But beyond the boardroom drama lay a broader debate over whether OpenAI and the rest of the industry were moving too quickly to deploy and commercialize its AI tools after the overnight success of ChatGPT a year ago.

  • Tuesday night's outcome won't end that debate, but it does seem to set OpenAI firmly back on the course that Altman has steered it on since 2019.
  • That's when OpenAI created a for-profit subsidiary that could accept large investments from Microsoft and others to fund the vast costs of developing the AI that underlies ChatGPT.

What they're saying: "We have reached an agreement in principle for Sam to return to OpenAI as CEO with a new initial board of Bret Taylor (Chair), Larry Summers, and Adam D'Angelo. We are collaborating to figure out the details. Thank you so much for your patience through this," a post from OpenAI on X, formerly Twitter, said.

  • Altman said in a post on X: "i love openai, and everything i've done over the past few days has been in service of keeping this team and its mission together. when i decided to join msft on sun evening, it was clear that was the best path for me and the team."
  • Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella: "We are encouraged by the changes to the OpenAI board," Nadella said in a post. "We believe this is a first essential step on a path to more stable, well-informed, and effective governance."
  • Brockman: "Returning to OpenAI & getting back to coding tonight." he said in a post.
  • Interim CEO Shear: "I'm glad to have been part of the solution," he posted.

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

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional detail.

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