Mar 8, 2024 - Technology

Sam Altman returns to OpenAI's board

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Animated illustration of the OpenAI logo turning into six question marks arranged in a circle.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

OpenAI on Friday announced CEO Sam Altman would be returning to the company's board, along with three new outside board members. The moves come as OpenAI wraps an external investigation into the events that led to his brief ouster last year.

Why it matters: The company has been looking to move past its dramatic leadership crisis of last November.

Driving the news: Open AI's board also added three women to its ranks — Sue Desmond-Hellmann, former CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Nicole Seligman, former EVP and general counsel at Sony Corporation; and Fidji Simo, CEO and chair of Instacart.

  • "We are excited and unanimous in our support for Sam and Greg [Brockman]," OpenAI chair Bret Taylor said on a conference call with reporters.

Catch up quick: Altman was abruptly fired as CEO and then rehired over a several-day span in which the firm's board said it had lost trust in him but nearly the entire company threatened to quit unless he was reinstated.

  • Microsoft, OpenAI's primary financial backer, announced it would hire Altman and others from OpenAI to lead a new research unit in the event of his departure. As Axios first reported, Microsoft only learned of Altman's firing a minute before the rest of the world.
  • In bringing Altman back, OpenAI also announced a new interim three-person board led by former Salesforce executive Bret Taylor, along with Larry Summers and Adam D'Angelo, co-founder of Quora and one of the members of the previous board who had supported Altman's ouster.

What they're saying: "I'm pleased this whole thing is over," Altman said on a call with reporters, noting that it has been painful to see people with an agenda leak things.

  • In response to a question from Axios about how OpenAI will change going forward, Taylor said, "We did adopt a number of governance enhancements," highlighting a whistleblower hotline and a new mission and strategy committee on the board.
  • "The mission has not changed, because it is more important than ever before," Taylor added.
  • "Having said that, I did learn a lot from this experience," Altman told reporters.

Between the lines: Altman's critics are likely to be dismayed by Altman's return to the board, as they see that as making it harder for employees to raise concerns in the future. They're also likely to be disappointed that only a summary of the investigation is being released.

What they found: The investigation by the WilmerHale law firm determined, per a summary provided by OpenAI, that "the prior Board acted within its broad discretion to terminate Mr. Altman, but also found that his conduct did not mandate removal."

  • "The prior Board believed at the time that its actions would mitigate internal management challenges and did not anticipate that its actions would destabilize the Company," the summary says.
  • "The prior Board's decision did not arise out of concerns regarding product safety or security, the pace of development, OpenAI's finances, or its statements to investors, customers, or business partners," the summary reads. "Instead, it was a consequence of a breakdown in the relationship and loss of trust between the prior Board and Mr. Altman."
  • OpenAI confirmed to Axios that it is not revealing more about the investigation beyond what's in the blog post.

"I'm very thankful to Bret and Larry [Summers] and WilmerHale for doing such a thorough investigation," Altman said on a call with reporters.

  • Altman also praised CTO Mira Murati for her work. Murati served briefly as acting CEO after Altman's firing.

The intrigue: Those critical of Altman had been hoping the investigation would thoroughly examine Altman's past actions.

  • But as the inquiry went on Altman's critics worried that the investigation may not have been structured to elicit candor, especially from current employees who might fear reprisals if not granted confidentiality.

One of the key questions for the new board will be whether it makes any changes to the company's current structure, which has OpenAI run as a non-profit with a for-profit subsidiary with investors, including Microsoft.

  • While the old board's concerns were with Altman and not the company's technology, the board saw a big part of its role as ensuring the company's technology was developed safely, regardless of business concerns, according to sources familiar with the old board's thinking.

Taylor told reporters the company is not done expanding the board and will continue to look for people who bring additional perspectives.

  • "The board is not done enhancing the governance of this organization," Taylor said.

The other side: The two board members who exited after Altman's reinstatement issued a statement on X (formerly Twitter) reiterating the concerns they raised during the investigation.

  • "As we told the investigators, deception, manipulation and resistance to oversight should be unacceptable," Helen Toner and Tasha McCauley said.
  • They urged the new board to uphold the company's mission, while wishing them and OpenAI's employees success. "Accountability is important in any company but it is paramount when building a technology as potentially world-changing as AGI," the two said."

Read here for the full timeline of the OpenAI board saga.

Editor's note: This is a breaking news story and will be updated.

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