Back to square one: Sam Altman to return to OpenAI as CEO

22 Nov 2023

Sam Altman in 2019. Image: Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Co-founders Greg Brockman and Sam Altman have both confirmed their return to OpenAI, days after they were fired from the ChatGPT-maker by the board.

In a return to order after the chaos that has ensued at OpenAI for the past few days, the wheels are in motion for Sam Altman to be reinstated as CEO.

OpenAI released a statement late last night (21 November) saying that an agreement has been reached “in principle” for Altman to return to the AI company as CEO with a new initial board comprising of Larry Summers. Adam D’Angelo and Bret Taylor as chair.

While details are yet to be ironed out, OpenAI co-founder Greg Brockman, who accompanied Altman to join an advanced research team at Microsoft earlier this week, posted on X that he is returning to the company and “getting back to coding tonight”.

Altman has confirmed his return to OpenAI.

“I love OpenAI, and everything I’ve done over the past few days has been in service of keeping this team and its mission together. When I decided to join Microsoft on Sunday evening, it was clear that was the best path for me and the team,” Altman wrote on X.

“With the new board and Satya’s [Nadella] support, I’m looking forward to returning to OpenAI, and building on our strong partnership with Microsoft.”

Altman was unexpectedly fired by the company’s board of directors on 17 November after a “deliberative review process”. The board claimed he had not been “consistently candid in his communications” and that it no longer had confidence in his ability to lead OpenAI.

But employees of the company, baffled by the lack of explanation given to them around Altman’s dismissal, put pressure on the board to resign and reinstate the former CEO in what they believed to be his rightful position.

“The process through which you terminated Sam Altman and removed Greg Brockman from the board has jeopardised all of [our] work and undermined our mission and company,” a letter signed by nearly all employees and addressed to the board read.

“Your conduct has made it clear you did not have the competence to oversee OpenAI.”

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, which has invested heavily in OpenAI, said he is “encouraged” by the latest changes to the OpenAI board.

“We believe this is a first essential step on a path to more stable, well-informed and effective governance,” he posted on X.

“Sam, Greg and I have talked and agreed they have a key role to play along with the OpenAI leadership team in ensuring OpenAI continues to thrive and build on its mission.”

This sentiment was echoed by Emmett Shear, the former Twitch CEO who was made interim chief executive of OpenAI during this ordeal. “I am deeply pleased by this result, after around 72 very intense hours of work,” he wrote on X.

“Coming into OpenAI, I wasn’t sure what the right path would be. This was the pathway that maximised safety alongside doing right by all stakeholders involved. I’m glad to have been a part of the solution.”

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Sam Altman in 2019. Image: Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch (CC BY 2.0)

Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic