Sam Altman Returns as OpenAI CEO in Chaotic Win for Microsoft

The agreement follows four days of high-stakes negotiations that shook the global AI industry.

Bloomberg News

November 22, 2023

5 Min Read
Sam Altman Returns as OpenAI CEO in Chaotic Win for Microsoft
Image: Bloomberg

(Bloomberg) -- Sam Altman will return to lead OpenAI less than five days after he was pushed out of one of the world’s most valuable startups, setting off a shock back-and-forth drama that transfixed Silicon Valley and the global AI industry.

Altman is returning as chief executive officer and the initial board will be led by Bret Taylor, a former co-CEO of Salesforce Inc. The other directors are Larry Summers, the former US Treasury Secretary, and existing member Adam D’Angelo, the co-founder and CEO of Quora Inc. OpenAI is now working “to figure out the details,” the company said in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

The decision to restore him to the world’s best-known AI startup marks a significant victory for Microsoft Corporation, which worked with fellow investors to reverse Altman’s firing. CEO Satya Nadella publicly supported Altman throughout the turmoil and briefly agreed to hire him at Microsoft to start a new in-house research group.

The two new board members also hold appeal for Wall Street and the Silicon Valley crowd. Summers, a Harvard academic and paid contributor to Bloomberg Television, sits on the board of several startups, including Jack Dorsey’s Block Inc. Taylor is a director at Shopify Inc. and, as a director at Twitter, acted as a calming force during the sale to Elon Musk last year.

The reworked OpenAI board will not be final: its main priority is to select up to nine new directors, said a person familiar with the negotiations who asked not to be identified. Board composition proved to be a major sticking point in negotiations for Altman’s return after his shocking ouster on Friday.

Parties are still determining which members — beside D’Angelo, who has been appointed — will stay on the new OpenAI board. Microsoft, whose AI strategy hinges on the startup’s technology, will likely have representation on the new board, certainly as an observer and possibly with one or more seats, one of the people said.

Altman agreed not to take a board seat initially in order to get the deal done, said the person. It’s likely he’ll join the board eventually. He also agreed to an internal investigation into the conduct that led to his dismissal, another person said.

OpenAI’s earlier board members included D’Angelo, OpenAI co-founder and chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, Tasha McCauley of GeoSim Systems, and Helen Toner, director at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

The agreement followed four days of high-stakes negotiations, after nearly all of its employees threatened to quit if Altman was not reinstated. Much of the drama played out on X as notable financiers, Silicon Valley honchos and key players from Nadella to Altman himself posted declarations, exchanged messages, liked each others’ posts and otherwise advocated their position. Altman’s rehiring triggered swift congratulations on X from main characters in the saga, including former president Greg Brockman — who said he too is returning to the company — and Chief Technology Officer Mira Murati.

In a statement Friday that triggered the furor, OpenAI said Altman was dismissed after an internal review by the board found the chief executive “was not consistently candid in his communications with the board, hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities.”

Negotiations for his return reached an impasse on Sunday in part over pressure from Altman and others for existing board members to resign, according to people familiar with the matter. Instead, the board named a new leader — former Twitch CEO Emmett Shear.

Within hours, most of OpenAI’s 770 employees signed a letter to the board saying they might quit and join Microsoft unless all directors resigned and Altman was reinstated. Among the many who signed the letter was Murati, who had been named interim CEO on Friday, and Sutskever.

The quick reversal could appease investors and reduce the threat of employees fleeing. But it also raises questions about the path ahead for the ChatGPT maker and other AI startups, which have tried to balance developing artificial intelligence responsibly alongside the need to raise vast amounts of capital from investors to support the expensive computing infrastructure required to build these tools.

Investors were blindsided by Altman’s removal. Microsoft, which backed the startup with a more than $10 billion stake, had only a few minutes’ advance notice about Altman’s firing. The software giant began working with investors including Thrive Capital and Tiger Global Management to bring him back, according to people familiar with the matter who asked to remain anonymous discussing private information.

More than any other figure, Altman, 38, emerged as the face of a new era of artificial intelligence technology, thanks to the viral success of ChatGPT. Altman was at the center of the industry’s efforts this year to work with regulators and he met regularly with world leaders, including US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. On Thursday, he appeared on a panel at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, attended by other executives and world leaders, to discuss the future of AI and its risks.

Behind the scenes, however, Altman clashed with members of his board, especially Sutskever, over how quickly to develop generative AI, how to commercialize products and the steps needed to lessen their potential harms to the public, people with knowledge of the matter have said.

Alongside rifts over strategy, board members also contended with Altman’s entrepreneurial ambitions. 

He has been looking to raise tens of billions of dollars from Middle Eastern sovereign wealth funds to create an AI chip startup to compete with AI accelerators made by Nvidia Corp., according to a person with knowledge of the investment proposal. Altman was courting SoftBank Group Corp. chairman Masayoshi Son for a multibillion-dollar investment in a new business to make AI-oriented hardware in partnership with former Apple Inc. designer Jony Ive.

The boardroom drama carried echoes of other coups in Silicon Valley history. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was fired as CEO in 1985 only to return more than a decade later. Twitter co-founder Dorsey was pushed out in 2008 and came back as CEO seven years later.

Read more about:

North America

About the Author(s)

Bloomberg News

The latest technology news from Bloomberg.

Subscribe to the Data Center Knowledge Newsletter
Get analysis and expert insight on the latest in data center business and technology delivered to your inbox daily.

You May Also Like