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OpenAI, emerging from the ashes, has a lot to prove even with Sam Altman’s return
Altman’s back, and OpenAI’s board has drastically changed. Now comes the hard part.
Kyle Wiggers
@kyle_l_wiggers / 7:28 AM GMT+6:30•November 23, 2023

An illustration of Sam Altman in front of the OpenAI logo
Image Credits: Darrell Etherington with files from Getty under license
The OpenAI power struggle that captivated the tech world after co-founder Sam Altman was fired has finally reached its end — at least for the time being. But what to make of it?

It feels almost as though some eulogizing is called for — like OpenAI died and a new, but not necessarily improved, startup stands in its midst. Ex-Y Combinator president Altman is back at the helm, but is his return justified? OpenAI’s new board of directors is getting off to a less diverse start (i.e. it’s entirely white and male), and the company’s founding philanthropic aims are in jeopardy of being co-opted by more capitalist interests.

That’s not to suggest that the old OpenAI was perfect by any stretch.

As of Friday morning, OpenAI had a six-person board — Altman, OpenAI chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, OpenAI president Greg Brockman, tech entrepreneur Tasha McCauley, Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo and Helen Toner, director at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technologies. The board was technically tied to a nonprofit that had a majority stake in OpenAI’s for-profit side, with absolute decision-making power over the for-profit OpenAI’s activities, investments and overall direction.

OpenAI’s unusual structure was established by the company’s co-founders, including Altman, with the best of intentions. The nonprofit’s exceptionally brief (500-word) charter outlines that the board make decisions ensuring “that artificial general intelligence benefits all humanity,” leaving it to the board’s members to decide how best to interpret that. Neither “profit” nor “revenue” get a mention in this North Star document; Toner reportedly once told Altman’s executive team that triggering OpenAI’s collapse “would actually be consistent with the [nonprofit’s] mission.”

Maybe the arrangement would have worked in some parallel universe; for years, it appeared to work well enough at OpenAI. But once investors and powerful partners got involved, things became… trickier.

Altman’s firing unites Microsoft, OpenAI’s employees
After the board abruptly canned Altman on Friday without notifying just about anyone, including the bulk of OpenAI’s 770-person workforce, the startup’s backers began voicing their discontent in both private and public.

Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, a major OpenAI collaborator, was allegedly “furious” to learn of Altman’s departure. Vinod Khosla, the founder of Khosla Ventures, another OpenAI backer, said on X (formerly Twitter) that the fund wanted Altman back. Meanwhile, Thrive Capital, the

aforementioned Khosla Ventures, Tiger Global Management and Sequoia Capital were said to be contemplating legal action against the board if negotiations over the weekend to reinstate Altman didn’t go their way.

Now, OpenAI employees weren’t unaligned with these investors from outside appearances. On the contrary, close to all of them — including Sutskever, in an apparent change of heart — signed a letter threatening the board with mass resignation if they opted not to reverse course.