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Reports: Sam Altman in talks for OpenAI return; board members could be ousted

Enlarge / Then-OpenAI CEO Sam Altman at APEC CEO Summit at Moscone West on November 16, 2023, in San Francisco.

Getty Images | Justin Sullivan

Former OpenAI CEO Sam Altman is in talks to return to the company’s top job days after he was fired, but nothing has been finalized, according to news reports today.

“Discussions are happening between Altman, CEO Emmett Shear and at least one board member, Adam D’Angelo,” Bloomberg wrote, citing anonymous sources. “The talks also involve some of OpenAI’s investors, many of whom are pushing for his reinstatement.” OpenAI shareholders reportedly lobbying for Altman’s reinstatement include Thrive Capital, Khosla Ventures, and Tiger Global Management.

Altman was fired on Friday by the board of directors of OpenAI, Inc., the nonprofit that controls the for-profit subsidiary OpenAI Global. An Altman return could be paired with changes to the board.

“In one scenario being discussed, Altman would become a director on a transitional board,” Bloomberg wrote. Former Salesforce co-CEO Bret Taylor could join the board, the report said.

Besides D’Angelo, who is also Quora’s CEO, the OpenAI board consists of OpenAI Chief Scientist Ilya Sutskever, entrepreneur Tasha McCauley, and Helen Toner of the Georgetown Center for Security and Emerging Technology. Altman was on the OpenAI board until he was forced out of the CEO role and board position last week. The board was previously chaired by Greg Brockman, who was removed from the board when Altman was fired and then quit his post as OpenAI CTO.

“That the board and Altman are in communication is a significant development because until Monday, the directors largely refused to engage with the executive they fired Friday, several people have said,” according to Bloomberg.

A Washington Post report similarly said that “talks were ongoing Tuesday about the future of OpenAI and the potential return of Sam Altman.” Altman’s return may be contingent on removal of the board members who fired him, the Post wrote:

Investors and executives were scrambling to figure out a plan to bring back Altman after it was revealed late Sunday night that he would be leading Microsoft’s new AI lab. Conflicting information was emerging from the negotiations. One person familiar with the situation said the talks were less about specific board members and more about creating a board that was “stable and well-intentioned.” Another person familiar with the matter said Altman would return only if the board members who fired him left.

Microsoft, Salesforce make offers to OpenAI employees

As noted, Altman appears to be headed to Microsoft if he doesn’t return to OpenAI. Microsoft already announced it was hiring Altman, though Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella suggested yesterday that he’s open to Altman returning to OpenAI instead.

Altman wrote yesterday that the “top priority” for himself and Nadella is to ensure that OpenAI “continues to thrive,” and that they “are committed to fully providing continuity of operations to our partners and customers.” The OpenAI/Microsoft partnership “makes this very doable,” he added.

Meanwhile, Microsoft and Salesforce are angling to hire OpenAI employees who are revolting against the Altman firing. By the end of Monday, 747 out of 770 OpenAI employees reportedly signed a letter threatening to quit and join Altman at Microsoft if the firing isn’t reversed.

Microsoft CTO Kevin Scott responded to the petition in a twitter.com post. “To my partners at OpenAI: We have seen your petition and appreciate your desire potentially to join Sam Altman at Microsoft’s new AI Research Lab. Know that if needed, you have a role at Microsoft that matches your compensation and advances our collective mission,” Scott wrote today.

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff also made a pitch. He wrote yesterday that Salesforce would match the salary and equity of “any OpenAI researcher who has tendered their resignation” and give them positions on the Salesforce Einstein Trusted AI research team.

OpenAI is currently being led by interim CEO Emmett Shear. According to Bloomberg, “Shear has been left in the dark” regarding certain key questions about Altman’s removal. Shear “has told people close to OpenAI that he doesn’t plan to stick around if the board can’t clearly communicate to him in writing its reasoning for Altman’s sudden firing,” Bloomberg wrote.


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