Why was OpenAI CEO Sam Altman fired?

By Consultants Review Team Saturday, 09 December 2023

When OpenAI's board fired Chief Executive Officer Sam Altman on the Friday before Thanksgiving, it provided little context beyond a statement saying the artificial intelligence startup's leader was not "consistently candid" with its directors.

The vague statement was the first salvo in a power struggle that took place almost entirely behind closed doors. According to those familiar with the matter, Altman and the board privately debated what to say publicly and when. During discussions about Altman's probable return as CEO, he offered to publicly apologize for misrepresenting some board members' opinions in conversations while he was pressing for the dismissal of a director, according to the people.

However, the board was concerned that an apology for one episode would make it appear as if it was the primary reason he was fired, according to one source, and the directors considered the concerns to be more serious.

The board has declined to comment on its reasoning, citing an ongoing independent investigation, but additional information about the decision-making is emerging. The directors' move, according to multiple people familiar with the board's thinking who asked not to be identified because they were discussing private conversations, was the culmination of months spent deliberating issues surrounding Altman's strategic maneuvering and a perceived lack of transparency in his communications with directors.

An OpenAI representative told Bloomberg News in a statement, "We look forward to the findings of the board's independent review." Our major focus remains on developing and distributing useful and secure AI, as well as assisting the new board in their efforts to enhance our governance structure." On Friday, OpenAI's chairman announced that the study would be led by two WilmerHale lawyers.

As per one source, board members began debating whether to remove Altman earlier in the autumn. Altman, President Greg Brockman, and the four persons who would eventually depose him as CEO were present at the time: OpenAI Chief Scientist Ilya Sutskever, Quora Inc. CEO Adam D'Angelo, AI academic Helen Toner, and entrepreneur Tasha McCauley. The organization has an unconventional structure, with an unpaid, nonprofit board managing a giant artificial intelligence startup. The primary purpose of directors is to responsibly guide AI development.

According to one person acquainted with the directors' thinking, the board had heard from certain top executives at OpenAI who had difficulties with Altman. Employees approached board members with caution, however, since they were afraid of the implications if Altman discovered they had spoken out against him, according to the source. Some facts of the employee dissatisfaction were previously reported by the Washington Post.

According to a business spokeswoman, in the aftermath of Altman's firing, OpenAI's senior leadership team unanimously asked Altman to return as CEO and the board to resign. "The strong support from his team underscores that he is an effective CEO who is open to different points of view, willing to solve complex challenges, and demonstrates care for his team," according to the press release.

Sutskever's misgivings had grown as the board debated Altman's leadership. The Israeli-Canadian computer scientist previously worked at Google Brain and was a researcher at Stanford University.  In July, he established a new division inside the firm to control "super intelligent" future AI systems. Sutskever's duties at the corporation were curtailed in October, suggesting friction between him and Altman and Brockman. Sutskever later appealed to the board, which he won over, including Toner, the director of strategy at Georgetown's Centre for Security and Emerging Technology.


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