In a surprise twist after Friday’s unexpected firing of OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, the artificial intelligence leader may be mulling a return.
Multiple news reports, including the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, cited anonymous sources who said the board is having second thoughts about the firing and has asked Altman to return. Altman is considering the offer, those sources reportedly said.
That would mark a shocking reversal of one of the more bizarre chapters of Silicon Valley leadership changes — and a key decision that could affect control over the future of AI, one of the key technologies expected to pave the way for the decades to come.
OpenAI did not respond to requests for comment.
The bombshell leadership change, which shook a giant of the artificial intelligence industry, took place extremely swiftly, said Greg Brockman, the company’s co-founder and former president, in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Altman’s firing unfolded on Friday as abruptly as it played out in public, according to one of the company’s co-founders, who said he was also demoted and then quit in the aftermath.
A key factor in Altman’s ouster was the presence of tensions between Altman, who favored pushing AI development more aggressively, and members of the OpenAI board, who wanted to move more cautiously, according to CNN contributor Kara Swisher, who spoke to sources knowledgeable about the crisis.
Brockman’s post, which appeared to be a joint statement speaking for himself and Altman, said the two were “still trying to figure out exactly what happened,” but summarized the sequence of events that led to Altman’s firing.
On Thursday evening, Altman received a text message from Ilya Sutskever, another co-founder of OpenAI and its chief scientist, Brockman said. The text message asked Altman to attend a meeting the following day.
“Sam joined a Google Meet and the whole board, except Greg, was there,” Brockman said, referring to himself. “Ilya told Sam he was being fired and that the news was going out very soon.”
“At 12:19pm, Greg got a text from Ilya asking for a quick call,” Brockman continued. “At 12:23pm, Ilya sent a Google Meet link. Greg was told that he was being removed from the board (but was vital to the company and would retain his role) and that Sam had been fired. Around the same time, OpenAI published a blog post.”
According to Swisher, Altman did not learn about the subject of the meeting until 30 minutes before.
After receiving word of his own ouster as board chair, Brockman subsequently announced he was quitting the company.
Driving the board’s decision were Sutskever’s concerns, which appear to have been exacerbated by OpenAI’s recent developer conference and the announcement of a way for anyone to create their own versions of ChatGPT, said Swisher, citing her sources. Swisher added that it represented “an inflection moment of Altman pushing too far, too fast” for Sutskever, who “got the board on his side.”
In its announcement of Altman’s firing, OpenAI claimed that Altman had been insufficiently “candid” with the board and that it had hindered the board’s ability to carry out its responsibilities.
The suddenness of the decision was reflected in how some of OpenAI’s most important partners were left in the dark.
Microsoft, which has invested billions into OpenAI and integrated its technology into the Bing search engine, was not informed of Altman’s firing until “just before” the public announcement, Swisher said, while employees were not given any advance warning.
On Friday evening, Altman posted on X that he “loved working with such talented people” at OpenAI and that he “will have more to say about what’s next later.”
He added that “if I start going off, the openai board should go after me for the full value of my shares.”
In his post, Brockman hinted that he and Altman may already be forging ahead. “Please don’t spend any time being concerned. We will be fine,” Brockman said. “Greater things coming soon.”
CNN has reached out to OpenAI for comment on Brockman and Swisher’s accounts of how the events transpired.
In announcing Altman’s firing, OpenAI said chief technology officer Mira Murati will serve as interim CEO.
In a statement on its website, OpenAI said Murati is “exceptionally qualified” and that the company has “the utmost confidence in her ability to lead OpenAI during this transition period.”
Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images
Mira Murati, Chief Technology Officer of OpenAI, speaks during The Wall Street Journal’s WSJ Tech Live Conference in Laguna Beach, California on October 17, 2023. (Photo by Patrick T. Fallon / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)
Murati, 34, has been part of OpenAI’s leadership team for five years, according to the company. The statement said she will step in as the board “conducts a formal search for a permanent CEO.”
The move immediately catapults Murati – already a significant figure in AI – as one of the most high-profile and recognizable women in tech.
And it puts her atop the company as questions swirl about what Altman’s ouster means, the direction of the board and even the purpose of the company and artificial intelligence itself.
But in some ways, this is familiar ground for Murati, a Dartmouth-educated engineer. In July, when OpenAI’s head of trust and safety announced plans to step down, Murati took up the baton as interim manager of that team.
Murati has previously spoken before about her high hopes for AI. In 2022, for example, she told CNN that AI “is really an extension of the human mind, and I hope we figure out how to deploy it in ways that are robustly beneficial and effective.”
No matter who is in charge, OpenAI faced a litany of challenges even before the upper-management shakeup. There are a growing number of competitors and startups in the AI space and increased regulations from governments may hinder the industry’s growth.