In a dramatic turn of events, Sam Altman has been reinstated as the CEO of OpenAI, just days after his unexpected dismissal on Nov. 17. The decision comes in response to a groundswell of support from employees and investors who came together to challenge the board’s decision to have him sacked.
OpenAI, a Microsoft-backed artificial intelligence (AI) startup and parent company of language chatbot ChatGPT, announced Altman’s return on Nov. 21 — signaling a marked shift influenced by internal and external pressures.
Co-founders and previous board members — including computer scientist Ilya Sutskever — who initially supported the ouster, have now been removed from the board. The shake up reflects the upheaval within the San Francisco-based tech company, and brings up concerns surrounding the future of AI and its governance.
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Altman’s reinstatement followed an ardent week marked by scrutiny and employee activism. Hundreds of OpenAI staff, led by co-founder and president Greg Brockman, demanded the resignation of the remaining board members. Their ultimatum was clear: Reinstate Altman or face a mass exodus to Microsoft, where preparations for a new AI lab were already underway under the guidance of CEO Satya Nadella.
“We believe this is a first essential step on a path to more stable, well-informed, and effective governance,” Nadella said in an X post (formerly known as Twitter) on Nov. 21. “Sam, Greg, and I have talked and agreed they have a key role to play along with the OAI leadership team in ensuring OAI continues to thrive and build on its mission. We look forward to building on our strong partnership and delivering the value of this next generation of AI to our customers and partners.”
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Microsoft, a major stakeholder and technology partner of OpenAI, played a crucial role in the unfolding events, Nadella noted. The software giant’s open support for Altman and the formation of the new AI team underscored the intertwined futures of both companies.
Still, minutia regarding Altman’s reinstatement remained cloudy. “We are collaborating to figure out the details. Thank you so much for your patience through this,” OpenAI said in a Nov. 21 message posted on X.
The saga began with the abrupt hiring of Emmett Shear, ex-Twitch CEO, as Altman’s interim replacement — a move that was soon overshadowed by the rallying cry for Altman’s return. The board’s initial plan to appoint Mira Murati, OpenAI’s technology chief, was quickly overshadowed by the growing dissent among employees.
Reinstate or bust
After the decision was made to remove Altman on Nov. 17, more than 730 OpenAI staff members expressed their intention to leave the company and follow Altman to Microsoft. In an open letter addressed to OpenAI’s board, the employees said their resignations would be contingent on the “immediate reinstatement” of Altman as CEO, and the resignation of all current board members.
“Microsoft has assured us that there are positions for all OpenAI employees at this new subsidiary should we choose to join,” the employees wrote in the letter.
Amid the leadership turmoil, prominent investors — including Tiger Global, Thrive Capital, and Sequoia Capital — who were blindsided by the board’s decision, mobilized to reverse the course. A statement on Nov. 22 emphasized the crucial roles Altman and co-founder Greg Brockman play in OpenAI’s mission and future potential.
Hours after Altman was axed, Brockman, who also acts as OpenAI’s president and former board chair, resigned as well. According to unnamed sources, the two were reportedly heard “talking to friends and investors” about starting another company, Wired reported.
Since its inception in 2015, OpenAI’s journey under Altman’s leadership has been one of immense growth. Currently valued at a staggering $86 billion, the company attributes the majority of its success to ChatGPT, which was released in late 2022.
Praised for its ability to help simplify users’ lives, the chatbot can assist users in a wide range of uses, including creating shopping lists and budgets, travel itineraries, crafting emails and cover letters, proofreading resumes, etc.
Unlike typical Silicon Valley startups, OpenAI operates under a unique structure, which is overseen by a board that governs all activities. This structure — coupled with its high-profile initial investors like Elon Musk and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman — has set the AI company apart within the tech landscape.
The reinstatement of Altman has drawn comparisons to Steve Jobs’ return to Apple in 1997 — a parallel that underscores the high stakes and potential impact of high-tier leadership changes in the tech industry. Prominent figures like former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky have also lauded Altman and affirmed his influence and leadership within the AI sector and beyond.
However, the rise of AI software also brings with it a host of concerns that warrant careful consideration, experts note. One of the main worries is the impact on employment as AI systems could automate jobs, which could result in the phasing out of roles across many fields. There are also ethical and privacy concerns — particularly around the use of AI in surveillance and data collection — raising questions about consent and data security.