Race to reinstate Sam Altman as OpenAI CEO reaches impasse


A group of OpenAI executives and investors racing to get Sam Altman reinstated to his role as chief executive officer have reached an impasse over the makeup and role of the board, according to people familiar with the negotiations. The decision to restore Altman’s role as CEO could come quickly, though talks are fluid and still ongoing. 

At midday Sunday, Altman and former President Greg Brockman were in the startup’s headquarters, according to people familiar with the matter.

OpenAI leaders pushing for the board to resign and to reinstate Altman include Interim CEO Mira Murati, Chief Strategy Officer Jason Kwon and Chief Operating Officer Brad Lightcap, according to a person with knowledge of the discussions. 

Altman, who was fired Friday, is open to returning but wants to see governance changes — including the removal of existing board members, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the negotiations are private. After facing intense pressure following their decision to fire Altman Friday, the board agreed in principle to step down, but have so far refused to officially do so. The directors have been vetting candidates for new directors. 

At the center of the high-stakes negotiations between the executives, investors and the board is Microsoft Corp. CEO Satya Nadella. Nadella has been leading the charge on talks between the different factions, some of the people said. Microsoft is OpenAI’s biggest investor, with $13 billion invested in the company. 

Bret Taylor, the former co-CEO of Salesforce Inc., will be on the new board, several people said. Another possible addition is an executive from Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft — but it’s unclear whether the software giant would take a board seat despite its large investment, some of the people said. 

The chaos began on Friday, when the directors led by OpenAI Chief Scientist Ilya Sutskever dismissed Altman, saying “he was not consistently candid in his communications with the board.” In a memo to staff Saturday, Lightcap said the decision to fire the CEO “was not made in response to malfeasance” or the company’s financial or safety practices.

Altman’s ousting “took us all by surprise,” Lightcap said in the memo, adding that  “we have had multiple conversations with the board to try to better understand the reasons and process behind their decision.” 

One longstanding issue that has divided the company was Altman’s drive to turn OpenAI, which got its start as a nonprofit organization, into a successful business — and how quickly he wanted the company to crank out products and sign up customers. That ran headlong into board member concerns over the safety of artificial intelligence tools capable of generating text, images and even computer code with minimal prompting.

Altman is keeping his options open, according to people familiar with his thinking, and is interested in returning to OpenAI, starting a new company or both. 

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