July 15, 2024

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Sam Altman Officially Returns to OpenAI—With a New Board Seat for Microsoft

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Sam Altman marked his formal return as CEO of OpenAI today in a company memo that confirmed changes to the company’s board, including a new nonvoting seat for the startup’s primary investor, Microsoft.

In a memo sent to staff and shared on OpenAI’s blog, Altman painted the chaos of the past two weeks, triggered by the board’s loss of trust in their CEO, during which almost the entire staff of the company threatened to quit, as a testament to the startup’s resilience rather than a sign of instability.

“You stood firm for each other, this company, and our mission,” Altman wrote. “One of the most important things for the team that builds [artificial general intelligence] safely is the ability to handle stressful and uncertain situations, and maintain good judgment throughout. Top marks.”

Altman was ousted on November 17. The company’s nonprofit board of directors said that a deliberative review had concluded that Altman “was not consistently candid in his communications with the board.” Under OpenAI’s unusual structure, the board’s duty was to the project’s original, nonprofit mission of developing AI that is beneficial to humanity, not the company’s business.

That board that ejected Altman included the company’s chief scientist, Ilya Sutskever, who later recanted and joined with staff who threatened to quit if Altman was not reinstated.

Altman said that there would be no hard feelings over that, although his note left questions over Sutskever’s future.

“I love and respect Ilya, I think he’s a guiding light of the field and a gem of a human being. I harbor zero ill will towards him,” Altman wrote, adding, “We hope to continue our working relationship and are discussing how he can continue his work at OpenAI.” What was clear, however, was that Sutskever would not be returning to the board.

Altman’s note to staff confirmed that OpenAI’s new all-male board will consist of former Treasury secretary Larry Summers, Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo, and former Salesforce co-CEO Bret Taylor, with Taylor as chair. D’Angelo is the only remaining member of the previous board.

Previous board members Helen Toner, a director at CSET, a think tank, and Tasha McCauley, an entrepreneur, both resigned.

Speaking at the New York Times DealBook summit shortly before the announcement, OpenAI cofounder Elon Musk expressed concerns about Altman and questioned why Sutskever had voted to fire him. “Either it was a serious thing and we should know what it is, or it’s not a serious thing and the board should resign,” Musk said. “I have mixed feelings about Sam, I do.”

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