OpenAI transformed how the public thinks about AI a year ago with the launch of its hugely successful chatbot, ChatGPT, and turned Altman into the face of the artificial intelligence industry. But he was fired by the board after disagreements with members over how quickly to develop and commercialise generative AI, people with knowledge of the matter have said. His firing shocked investors and prompted nearly all employees to quit and follow Altman to Microsoft, OpenAI’s biggest backer, which had agreed to hire him to head a new in-house AI unit.
OpenAI’s board largely refused to engage with Altman following his firing on Friday, despite the immense pressure to reinstate him. Instead, the board named Twitch co-founder and former chief Emmett Shear its second interim CEO on Sunday night, after Murati advocated in favour of Altman returning to the company.
Later that night, Ilya Sutskever, the company’s chief scientist and board member, joined Shear in attempting to corral OpenAI employees for a meeting at its San Francisco headquarters, but hardly anyone showed up, according to a source familiar with the matter who asked not to be named discussing private information.
As of Tuesday – after more than 700 of OpenAI’s 770 employees had signed a letter threatening to quit – Altman was back in discussions with board member D’Angelo, said people with knowledge of the matter. (Sutskever was among the employees who signed the letter, after expressing “regret” for his “participation in the board’s actions.“)
The negotiating parties made key concessions in order to reach an agreement, people familiar with the matter said. Altman agreed not to join the initial board, people said, though some expect he will become a director eventually. The parties also agreed to an independent investigation into Altman and the events surrounding his ouster, people said.
Shear’s decision to join the deliberations was also critical to reaching a deal, one person said. Shear had been vocal about the existential risks of AI, a position that was compelling for the board directors at OpenAI, Bloomberg reported.
“Coming into OpenAI, I wasn’t sure what the right path would be,” Shear wrote on X after Altman’s return was announced.
“This was the pathway that maximised safety alongside doing right by all stakeholders involved.”
As the parties worked to hammer out an agreement, they also had to contend with logistical issues. One board member was on a plane for several hours during negotiations and was out of communication, one person said. There was also a push to resolve the leadership chaos before Thanksgiving, people said, in the hope that employees wouldn’t spend the holiday with uncertainty looming about the state of their jobs.
Many workers had more than their jobs on the line. The company was set to orchestrate the sale of employee shares to investors at a valuation of $US86 billion ($131 billion), but those plans had been jeopardised by the leadership upheaval. Some people at the company stood to make millions in the deal, which wouldn’t happen if more than 90 per cent of OpenAI’s staff quit. (The tender offer, which was set to be led by Thrive Capital, is now back on track, according to people familiar with the matter.)
One competing AI company said that it had fielded multiple nervous inquiries from OpenAI employees asking about potential jobs, according to a person who asked not to be identified discussing private overtures. Several tech executives, such as Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, made it clear on social media that they’d be happy to have them. And some rival AI companies experienced an uptick in demand from customers.
Hours before an agreement was announced on Tuesday, an OpenAI executive encouraged employees to “get back to shipping” products. Employees, who have this week off, were told they could also expense pizza. “To call this a challenging last few days would be an understatement,” a company vice president, Peter Deng, wrote in a message on Slack and viewed by Bloomberg News. He stressed that the company was committed to its mission. “Raise a slice and share a photo in the thread so we can enjoy this moment together.”
After Altman’s return was announced, OpenAI’s general counsel Che Chang invited employees to the office for a “quick celebration” with Altman, according to a Slack message. By Wednesday morning, however, the celebrations had died down. Employees were exhausted from the days-long saga, one person said, and most were going into “Thanksgiving mode.”
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