SAN FRANCISCO – Sam Altman and members of the OpenAI board have opened negotiations aimed at a possible return of the ousted co-founder and chief executive officer to the artificial intelligence company, according to people familiar with the matter.
The discussions are happening between Altman and at least one board member, Adam D’Angelo, said the sources, who asked not to be identified because the deliberations are private. The talks also involve some of OpenAI’s investors, many of whom are pushing for Altman’s reinstatement, one of the people said.
In one scenario being discussed, Altman would return as a director on a transitional board, one of the people said. Former Salesforce Inc. co-CEO Bret Taylor could also serve as a director on a new board, multiple people said.
Significant Development in Tumultuous Week
That the board and Altman are in communication is a significant development because until Monday, the directors largely refused to engage with the executive they fired Friday, several people have said.
The discussions come after a tumultuous week at the leading AI startup. Altman’s abrupt ousting Friday kicked off a series of events that put the company in disarray. The board cited that Altman was not “consistently candid in his communications,” but did not provide specifics.
In response, the majority of OpenAI employees threatened to quit if Altman were not reinstated, among other demands. Prominent investors also began lobbying for Altman’s return.
There is now a push to resolve the chaos surrounding the company’s leadership before Thanksgiving, said one person, in the hope that employees don’t spend the holiday with uncertainty looming about the state of their jobs.
Top Investors Lobbying for Altman’s Return
OpenAI shareholders angling for Altman’s reinstatement include Thrive Capital, Khosla Ventures and Tiger Global Management, people with knowledge of the matter told Bloomberg. Prominent venture capital firm Sequoia Capital is working alongside the group, another person said.
On Monday, OpenAI Vice President of Global Affairs Anna Makanju sent a memo to staff saying the company had been in “intense discussions” with the board, Altman and new CEO Emmett Shear to unify the company.
But even Shear has been left in the dark on the reasons behind Altman’s firing, according to people familiar with the matter. He has told people close to OpenAI that he doesn’t plan to stick around if the board can’t clearly communicate to him its reasoning, sources said.
Until Friday, OpenAI’s board consisted of Altman, President Greg Brockman, Chief Scientist Ilya Sutskever, Quora Inc. CEO D’Angelo, tech entrepreneur Tasha McCauley and Helen Toner, director of strategy at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.
After Altman’s exit, Brockman left the company in protest as well.
OpenAI declined to comment on the state of negotiations around Altman’s potential return.
Microsoft CEO Calls for Explanation
OpenAI’s largest investor Microsoft Corp. has also called for more transparency around Altman’s ousting. CEO Satya Nadella said publicly this week that he has not been given any explanation for the move.
“Any time there’s founder transitions, it’s not straightforward,” Nadella said. “The founders who create companies with their passion and energy, but sometimes with their passion and energy there needs to be some thoughtfulness around it also.”
Impact on AI Safety Efforts
The chaos around OpenAI’s leadership comes at a sensitive time for the company, which made waves last week with the release of ChatGPT, an AI chatbot that can produce human-like writing on demand.
There are rising concerns around AI safety and ethics with advanced models like ChatGPT. OpenAI plays an outsized role in setting best practices for commercial AI systems. But this week’s controversy leaves uncertainty around who will lead those efforts.
Altman and Brockman founded OpenAI as a non-profit in 2015 with a focus on ensuring cutting-edge AI is developed safely with oversight. But the company shifted to a “capped profit” model in 2019 after struggling to raise more funding from nonprofits amid rising compute costs.
That pivot opened up investment from the likes of Microsoft and other VC firms focused on generating returns. It remains to be seen how OpenAI would balance profit motivations with its safety mission if Altman returned as CEO.
In the near-term, all sides seem motivated to resolve the leadership confusion before the holiday. Employees and investors see Altman’s return as the simplest path forward.
But the board shocked many with its initial move to fire Altman without explanation. If negotiations fall through, it could signal deeper divisions inside the board itself around OpenAI’s direction.
The coming days will determine whether OpenAI’s founding team can reunite around a shared vision for building AI responsibly before powerful models irrevocably change society.