UPDATED 18:46 EST / NOVEMBER 19 2023


Update: Sam Altman reportedly won’t return as OpenAI CEO despite investor push


Some of OpenAI LP’s most influential investors are pushing for the company to reinstate ousted Chief Executive Sam Altman, who’s sudden dismissal Friday afternoon sent shockwaves through the tech world, but the latest word Sunday night was that he’s not returning.

Reports from Bloomberg, The Verge and the Wall Street Journal claim Altman (pictured) is currently in the “final stretch” of negotiations over his return and is determined to resolve the situation by the end of the weekend. Microsoft Corp., the largest investor in OpenAI, also wants to ensure everything is settled before the stock markets open Monday.

Bloomberg and the Journal both cited people familiar with the discussions as saying that investors are pressuring OpenAI’s board of directors to reinstate Altman. Those investors, led by Thrive Capital and Sequoia Capital, have reportedly asked Microsoft to use its influence to enable Altman’s return.

The co-founder and so-far former CEO of OpenAI arrived at the company’s headquarters Sunday morning as a guest, and later posted a photo of himself on X, formerly Twitter, wearing a visitor’s badge. He wrote that it would be the “first and last time I ever wear one of these.”

Update: Late Sunday evening, Bloomberg reported that interim CEO Mira Murati is looking to rehire Altman and Greg Brockman, OpenAI’s former president and chairman, who resigned after Altman’s dismissal, in an undetermined capacity. Meanwhile, OpenAI’s board is reportedly seeking a different CEO.

A source also told The Information that Chief Scientist Ilya Sutskever, who is reportedly the one who pushed for Altman’s ouster, has told staff that Altman won’t return as CEO. Sutskever also reportedly said Emmett Shear, co-founder of video streaming site Twitch, which Amazon.com Inc. bought in 2014, will take over as interim CEO. In addition, the report said, several dozen people said internally after Sutskever said Altman isn’t coming back that they’re leaving.

Still, this may well not be the last word, given the influence and motivation of Microsoft, among other investors, who have appeared to support Altman.

Other influential persons at the artificial intelligence firm, including Chief Strategy Officer Jason Kwon, have also come out in support of Altman. Numerous employees of the company appear to be backing Altman too, with many of them sharing hearts in response to one of his posts on social media.

Altman was swiftly removed from his post on Friday in a move that blindsided many within the company, as well as its backers. In a statement, OpenAI’s board said that it “no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading” the company, adding that it believed Altman was “not consistently candid in his communications.”

Others at OpenAI expressed their shock at the move. On Saturday morning, Chief Operating Officer Brad Lightcap said in a memo to employees that the board’s decision took everyone by surprise. “We have had multiple conversations with the board to try to better understand the reasons and process behind their decision,” Lightcap wrote. “These discussions, and options regarding our path forward, are ongoing this morning.”

In the hours following Altman’s dismissal, Microsoft issued a statement expressing its confidence in the company, which is best known for creating the ChatGPT chatbot that took the world by storm following its release late last year.

However, many of OpenAI’s other backers are said to be angry that they were not invited to discuss Altman’s position. Sources say that OpenAI’s investors are now looking at various options as they attempt to mount a counter-coup, remove the current board and reinstall Altman.

Holger Mueller of Constellation Research Inc. said the most shocking aspect of this episode has been a lack of professionalism on both sides, with Altman distracted by other activities and losing the trust of the board, and the board unceremoniously dumping him and now being challenged for doing so. Microsoft, although stating publicly that it remains confident in OpenAI, must also be extremely concerned, he said.

“Microsoft has staked an awful lot on the success of OpenAI and its technology, which are key to its AI platforms and capabilities,” Mueller said. “Ultimately, the outcome will depend on how important Altman is as a leader and brand for OpenAI’s employees, its ecosystem, its investors and the AI industry itself.”

OpenAI’s board currently consists of Sutskever, Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo, former GeoSim Systems Inc. CEO Tasha McCauley and Helon Toner, from Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology. Sutskever is also a co-founder of the company, and was said to be the key mover behind Altman’s dismissal.

Altman is reportedly demanding that the board be replaced as a key condition of his return to the company. However, negotiations are said to have been held up by disagreements over who would make up the new board. Bret Taylor, formerly the co-CEO of Salesforce Inc., was named by Bloomberg as a candidate to sit on the new board, along with some Microsoft executives.

Mueller said the ousting and possible reinstatement of Altman could well become a Harvard case study for the lack of investor representation on a board of directors.

“It’s likely that this was all about directional changes and conflicts that stemmed from the investors’ push to commercialize OpenAI’s business and make it more profitable,” he explained. “There’s no question that it’s tricky to strike the right balance between societal and commercial pressures, and capital and employee demands. But when a board of directors attempts to operate without any representation of one of the key constituents, it usually gets very ugly, as we see now. Those interested in seeing generative AI progress should hope for a rapid resolution to this affair.”

Altman is also reportedly mulling the idea of starting a new AI firm alongside a number of former OpenAI employees.

Photo: Sam Altman/X

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