By David Goldman, CNN
New York (CNN) — Sam Altman is back at OpenAI. Well… he’s back at the OpenAI headquarters in San Francisco, anyway. Whether or not he returns as CEO of the ChatGPT parent company is still up in the air.
Posting on X a photo of himself Sunday holding a green guest badge connected to a lanyard labeled “OpenAI,” the just-ousted CEO wrote: “first and last time i ever wear one of these.”
Altman didn’t say why he was at OpenAI’s office Sunday, but multiple news reports, including the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, said that the board that fired him has had second thoughts and has engaged with him and Greg Brockman, the company’s co-founder and former president, for a return. Brockman resigned Friday moments after the company showed Altman the door.
It was unclear until Sunday whether Altman would consider a comeback just days after being ousted. But his appearance at OpenAI suggests he is at least mulling a return.
Still, negotiations between the board and Altman haven’t yielded any results as of yet, and it’s not clear that Altman will accept the board’s offer to return. He may impose conditions, according to multiple news reports, including insisting that Microsoft, OpenAI’s biggest investor, take a seat on the board. He also reportedly wants to add other allies as directors.
OpenAI’s inexperienced board is down to just four members after Altman and Brockman left the company: Ilya Sutskever, the company’s chief scientist; Adam D’Angelo, the founder of Quora; Tasha McCauley, CEO of 3D modeling company GeoSim Systems; and Helen Toner, director of strategy at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.
The board had said Friday Altman “was not consistently candid in his communications” with them, an opaque phrase that left much to the imagination. Brockman said Friday in a post on X that the board gave Altman and other strategic partners virtually no heads up about the decision. That reportedly included Microsoft, which does not hold a board seat – but does have $13 billion invested in the company.
Shares of Microsoft (MSFT) fell after Altman’s ouster Friday, and the company’s leadership probably wants the wunderkind leader of its most promising (and very expensive) investment back at the helm before the market opens Monday.
The company is a nonprofit. But Altman, Brockman and Sutskever in 2019 formed OpenAI LP, a for-profit entity that exists within the larger company’s structure. That for-profit company took OpenAI from worthless to a valuation of $90 billion in just a few years – and Altman is largely credited as the mastermind of that plan and the key to the company’s success.
Altman had pushed the for-profit company to innovate faster and go to market with products. That reportedly scared the company’s board, which remained majority controlled by the nonprofit wing of the company. CNN contributor Kara Swisher reported that OpenAI’s recent developer conference served as an inflection point: Altman announced that OpenAI would make tools available so anyone could create their own version of ChatGPT.
If Altman gets his wishes and returns to OpenAI, the company could look quite different than it does today, with a board more focused on profitability and growth – like most Silicon Valley startups. If not, Altman reportedly may opt for another venture, perhaps taking loyalists away from OpenAI to his new landing spot.
Either way, OpenAI’s board made a consequential decision that will make massive waves in the AI industry for years to come.
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