Editor’s note: WRAL TechWire contributing writer Jen McFarland has 20+ years working in IT with experiences across a range of tools and technologies. She wants to help small businesses and teams design, improve, and maintain the technology that helps them succeed. In 2022, she incorporated Marit Digital.
RALEIGH — Approaching the 1-year anniversary of the release of ChatGPT, OpenAI has once again been in the news of late. But not in a good way.
It’s not discussions of their latest model or new GPTs that have dominated headlines for the last week, but the unexpected story of CEO Sam Altman’s firing, then potential rehiring, then hiring by Microsoft, then rehiring by OpenAI. It’s been a whole thing.
In case you missed the latest news, which broke over X, Sam Altman is returning to OpenAI, with a mostly new board waiting for him. The new membership includes chair Bret Taylor, a former Salesforce CEO, and Larry Summers, a former Treasury Secretary under the Clinton administration. Adam D’Angelo, CEO of Quora, is the lone figure who has remained on the board after the fallout.
Speculation is rampant that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella will also be offered a board position. Microsoft reportedly owns 49% of OpenAI, and its involvement is critical to securing the computing power the company desperately needs.
OpenAI’s upheaval was seeded by its unusual governance structure. OpenAI was created as a non-profit with the goal of “democratizing AI”, however, the organization transitioned to a “capped” for-profit in 2019. The resulting structure allows the for-profit OpenAI Global to attract investment and distribute equity to its employees while being controlled by the non-profit arm, OpenAI, Inc. as the controlling stakeholder.
It’s the board of that non-profit arm that stepped in last week to remove Altman on claims that he was not “consistently candid in his communications.”
After the latest startling reversal this morning, many questions remain. OpenAI President and board chair Greg Brockman, who resigned in solidarity with Altman last week, announced on X that he is also returning to the OpenAI. However, there has been no mention of Greg returning to his board chair position, which apparently goes to Taylor.
Former board member Ilya Sutskever is a big question mark as well. As reported by Kara Swisher, Sutskever was the man behind the board’s decision, however, days later he reversed his position and signed the letter from OpenAI employees demanding Altman’s return.
Which only deepens the other mystery: the details behind the original conflict. The board members who fired Altman, including Sutskever, have remained mum on their reasoning, even as investors threatened lawsuits. Now that Altman has returned, and is positioned in more favorable circumstances, it’s unlikely those details will ever see the light of day.
Let’s start with Sam Altman. For someone who got fired, he had a great week, landing a job at Microsoft, seeing concrete devotion from his employees, and ultimately landing back in his role with a more supportive board. In total, 710 of OpenAI’s 770 employees signed the letter demanding Altman’s return. The company is likely to rebound from this experience with a renewed sense of camaraderie and belief in its leadership.
Microsoft and CEO Satya Nadella also came out ahead. Even if they didn’t end up “acqui-hiring” (acquiring through hiring) OpenAI – which looked very possible for a day or two – they have shown themselves to be steadfast supporters of the company. That devotion will likely reinforce future relations between the companies.
The other winner here is the advancement of AI. Whatever your thoughts on the pace of this technology, there is no doubt that this has put power in the hands of those who want to accelerate the technology. New board member Summers has shown openness to AI advancement in the past and new board chair Taylor is rumored to be at work on his own AI company. Contrast this with the previous board’s pick for CEO, Emmett Shear who reportedly recommended slowing AI development as recently as September.
“If we’re at a speed of 10 right now, a pause is reducing to zero. I think we should aim for a 1-2 instead,” said Sheer.
Well, the old OpenAI board probably isn’t feeling too good right now.
The behavior of the board should be a blueprint for what not to do. The board broke the news with little warning, and without input from stakeholders and employees. They also seem to have spent Sunday open to negotiation with Altman while hiring Shear. Their lack of transparency on reasoning also seems at odds with the fact that this is the faction of the company fighting for oversight and caution.
And that’s part of why the other loser is openness. OpenAI has been notoriously not open, and it’s unlikely that the shift in the board and return of Altman will change that.
Make no mistake, OpenAI has delivered outstanding tools in the past year, and I am not suggesting that Altman returning to his position is a bad thing for AI. But when we look back at this moment in the future we may wonder what a truly open OpenAI might have offered for the development of AI.