Sam Altman is returning to OpenAI as CEO after his firing five days ago launched the company onto one of the wildest rollercoaster rides in tech history. Former president Greg Brockman, who resigned on Friday in protest, will also return, The Verge's sources say. The original board has been disbanded and replaced by a new, temporary three-man board with Bret Taylor (chair), Larry Summers and original board member Adam D'Angelo, the company said in a post on X.
The agreement has been struck "in principal," and must still be approved by all parties. The only job of the initial board will be to vet and appoint a permanent board with up to 9 members that will reset OpenAI's governance. One of those seats will likely to go Microsoft and Altman himself, The Verge reported.
We have reached an agreement in principle for Sam Altman to return to OpenAI as CEO with a new initial board of Bret Taylor (Chair), Larry Summers, and Adam D'Angelo.
We are collaborating to figure out the details. Thank you so much for your patience through this.
— OpenAI (@OpenAI) November 22, 2023
Altman confirmed the news in a separate post. "With the new board and with Satya's support, I'm looking forward to returning to OpenAI and building on our strong partnership with [Microsoft]," he said. That means Altman wouldn't join Microsoft after all, though he added that he felt his decision at the time "was the best path for me and the team."
"We are encouraged by the changes to the OpenAI board," Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella added in another post. "We believe this is a first essential step on a path to more stable, well-informed, and effective governance."
Another major OpenAI investor, Thrive Capital, issued a statement calling Altman's return "the best outcome for the company, its employees, those who build on their technologies and the world at large." Helen Toner, who reportedly had a hand in ousting Altman in the first place, posted "and now, we all get some sleep."
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 msft on sun evening, it was clear that was the best path for me and the team. with the new board and w satya’s support, i’m…
— Sam Altman (@sama) November 22, 2023
The timeline over the last week reads almost like a telenovela. It commenced with the shocking termination of CEO Altman late in the day on Friday, November 17, followed by Brockman announcing that we would quit in protest. OpenAI then appointed CTO Mira Murati as interim CEO. The board stated that Altman was terminated for not being "consistently candid" in communications, a confusing comment that only generated more speculation.
The drama continued on the weekend, as Nadella was reportedly "furious" over the decision, particularly because Microsoft was only given a few minutes of notice before the decision was publicly revealed. On Saturday he announced that Microsoft "remained committed" to its OpenAI partnership, but simultaneously revealed that he was hiring Altman to head a new AI division. By the end of the weekend, Murati was replaced as CEO by Twitch co-founder Emmett Shear.
On Monday, nearly the entire OpenAI staff told the board in an open letter that it would resign and join the new Microsoft subsidiary if Altman didn't return to the company as CEO. Things weren't looking great when the board failed to respond to the letter by the stated deadline, despite a post from co-founder Ilya Sutskever taking some blame for the situation. Compounding things, Shear threatened to step down as CEO, saying Altman's termination was "handled very badly."
Yesterday, it was reported that Altman was again negotiating with the board to return as CEO. However, as recently as a few hours ago, it still looked like Altman would be heading to Microsoft and perhaps taking many of OpenAI's employees with him. Shear's threat to quit reportedly lit a fire under OpenAI's board, which restarted negotiations with Altman in earnest, leading to today's announcement that he'd be coming back after all.