Nov 23, 2023 - Technology

What's next for OpenAI with Sam Altman back in charge

Illustration of eye emojis with the OpenAI logo in the pupil

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Sam Altman's return to OpenAI as CEO is a win for him, but not a total win — and even now, the game still has more innings.

Why it matters: The company that sparked the generative-AI boom isn't going to collapse in chaos or lose all its employees to competitors, but its future still carries big question marks.

What's next: The turmoil at OpenAI will calm down as a new three-man board takes over. But Altman isn't on that board — and Quora CEO Adam D'Angelo, part of the old board majority that fired Altman, is.

An independent investigation into the events around Altman's firing could strengthen Altman's position if it concludes that he did no wrong.

  • But if it finds a smoking gun somewhere in the former board's reasons for giving him the sack — which the board has failed repeatedly to explain since then — Altman could face more challenges.

The new board could move rapidly to expand its roster, including with representatives of Microsoft, the firm's largest investor and closest partner.

  • But the board is unlikely to add Altman back until the investigation clears him.

That means ultimate authority over OpenAI's fate, which used to rest with six people, now rests with three: D'Angelo; new board chair Bret Taylor, former co-CEO of Salesforce; and former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers.

  • It's an all-white-male board deciding the future of a technology that's beset with concerns over bias, misinformation and deepening inequality.

Zoom out: OpenAI's creation as a nonprofit was intended to help insure that the development of advanced AI would "benefit humanity." But since the release of ChatGPT a year ago, the company has been riding the tiger of a tech boom that could mint billions.

  • At first, the board battle looked like a last stand by the forces that aim to slow AI down for safety's sake against Silicon Valley's build-fast-and-break-things ethos.
  • In fact, sources familiar with the old board's thinking say the falling-out was more personal and involved a loss of trust in Altman.

The bottom line: There will be no pause in AI research and deployment. But OpenAI's near-implosion could reinforce efforts in Washington and abroad to regulate the AI industry more quickly.

  • Promises and commitments by CEOs don't look as reliable when the CEOs can come and go this quickly.
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