Sam Altman finally returns as the CEO of OpenAI after nearly a week of uncertainty and chaos. From being ousted as the CEO of OpenAI to joining Microsoft to forming a new AI division, things have changed dramatically. So in this article, we have written a blow-by-blow account of everything that transpired from last week till now. We have included all the key people and their commentaries involved in the development. On that note, let’s jump to the timeline of events that transpired at the offices of OpenAI.
The Fall and Rise of Sam Altman
Note: The timestamps below are in IST. Pacific Standard Time (PST) is 13.5 hours behind of India Standard Time (IST).
- 1:58 AM · Nov 18, 2023
The dramatic development started with OpenAI’s official blog stating that Sam Altman has been fired and Mira Murati (OpenAI CTO) has been appointed as interim CEO to lead OpenAI.
The members of the board who signed Altman’s ouster included Adam D’Angelo (Quora CEO), Helen Toner (CSET AI Policy Research), Tasha McCauley (GeoSim CEO), and Ilya Sutskever (OpenAI Chief Scientist).
The board collectively said, “[Sam] was not consistently candid in his communications with the board, hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities. The board no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI.“
In addition, the OpenAI board also removed OpenAI co-founder Greg Brockman from the position of chairman of the board but was kept in the company.
- 3:16 AM · Nov 18, 2023
In about an hour, Sam Altman posted on X (formerly Twitter) saying goodbye to OpenAI and all hell broke loose. Altman didn’t give much information on what actually transpired behind his dismissal.
- 5:39 AM · Nov 18, 2023
After a few hours, Greg Brockman penned down his thoughts on OpenAI board’s decision on X and said “I quit” showing solidarity with Altman.
- 10:12 AM · Nov 18, 2023
While everyone was trying to understand the situation, Greg Brockman chimed in and tweeted the details behind the development. Apparently, Sam was informed by Ilya Sutskever along with other board members, except Greg, that he is being fired from OpenAI over a Google Meet call.
Just after that, Greg was also told by Sutskever that he was being removed from the board but would be retained in the company.
The interim CEO, Mira Murati, only learned about the new role a night before the chaotic day. The management was informed after Sam’s ouster around the same time. According to the Bloomberg report, Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, which owns a 49% stake in OpenAI and has invested billions in the startup was blindsided by the board’s decision.
- 4:55 AM · Nov 18, 2023
Satya Nadella, to assuage the sentiments of investors and customers, quickly turned to X (formerly Twitter) and posted, “We have a long-term agreement with OpenAI with full access to everything we need to deliver on our innovation agenda and an exciting product roadmap; and remain committed to our partnership, and to Mira and the team.”
There was no mention of Sam Altman or Greg Brockman in the tweet.
- 10:28 AM · Nov 20, 2023
Amid the chaos, The Information reported that Emmet Shear, the co-founder and former CEO of Twitch, has been installed as the interim OpenAI CEO in place of Mira Murati. Emmett Shear made the news public on his X account. He said that he has accepted the offer and has plans to reform the management and leadership.
- 1:23 PM · Nov 20, 2023
Finally, a couple of hours later, Satya Nadella made a surprising announcement on X saying, “we’re extremely excited to share the news that Sam Altman and Greg Brockman, together with colleagues, will be joining Microsoft to lead a new advanced AI research team.“
Everyone, including industry veterans, applauded Satya for hiring Sam and Greg to oversee a new AI division inside Microsoft.
- 3:36 PM · Nov 20, 2023
Within an hour, Mira Murati posted on X, “OpenAI is nothing without its people” rallying support from all quarters. Prominent OpenAI employees started tweeting the same post, and it illustrated that many from the OpenAI team were backing Sam Altman.
- 6:45 PM · Nov 20, 2023
By evening, Ilya Sutskever, the chief scientist of OpenAI and a member who was part of the board’s decision that ousted Sam Altman, made a complete volte-face. Ilya tweeted, “I deeply regret my participation in the board’s actions. I never intended to harm OpenAI. I love everything we’ve built together and I will do everything I can to reunite the company.”
Everyone was left wondering what exactly made Ilya change his stance. But a report from The Wall Street Journal, said that Anna Brockman, the wife of Greg Brockman cried and pleaded with Ilya to change his mind.
- 7:18 PM · Nov 20, 2023
Right after that, nearly all employees at OpenAI revolted the board’s decision and told everyone to resign. And stunningly, Ilya Sutskever had signed the letter along with 700+ OpenAI staff. The letter demanded to reinstate Sam Altman and Greg Brockman otherwise all the employees would move to Microsoft in no time. The letter threatened the board in the following terms:
“Your actions have made it obvious that you are incapable of overseeing OpenAl. We are unable to work for or with people that lack competence, judgement and care for our mission and employees.
We, the undersigned, may choose to resign from OpenAI and join the newly announced Microsoft subsidiary run by Sam Altman and Greg Brockman.
Microsoft has assured us that there are positions for all OpenAl employees at this new subsidiary should we choose to join. We will take this step imminently, unless all current board members resign, and the board appoints two new lead independent directors, such as Bret Taylor and Will Hurd, and reinstates Sam Altman and Greg Brockman.”
- 10:50 AM · Nov 21, 2023
The board was now in a tight spot. The deliberations started between Sam Altman, Greg Brockman, Mira Murati, Jason Kwon, Brad Lightcap, Emmett Shear, Adam D’Angelo, and other key members.
In the meantime, a report by The Verge suggested that Satya Nadella, despite announcing that Sam and Greg are joining Microsoft, is not sure about the decision to materialize.
In an interview with Bloomberg TV, when asked if both are now Microsoft employees, Satya replied, “So they’re all in the process of joining.” In another interview with CNBC, Satya asserted, “[We’re] committed to OpenAI and Sam, irrespective of what configuration.” He further pressed for more stability and said, “definitely want some governance changes. This idea that changes happen without being in the loop is not good“.
In another report by The Verge, it became abundantly clear that Sam Altman is still trying to return as OpenAI CEO. Sam Altman tweeted, “We have more unity and commitment and focus than ever before. We are all going to work together some way or other, and I’m so excited. One team, One mission.“
- 11:33 AM · Nov 22, 2023
Finally, on November 22, the chaotic drama came to an end. OpenAI formally announced that, “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.“
Sam Altman is now back as the CEO of OpenAI along with Greg Brockman. And Helen Toner, Tasha McCauley, and Ilya Sutskever have been removed from the board. Some reports suggest that a new board of 9 members will be constituted later with Sam Altman and Satya Nadella likely making it into the the expanded board.
At the same time, Satya Nadella shared a post on X and emphasized building a strong partnership between Microsoft and OpenAI along with stable and effective governance.
- 1:11 PM · Nov 22, 2023
Nearly an hour later, Greg Brockman shared a picture with the people at OpenAI, and the company account retweeted the picture with the caption – “OpenAI is nothing without its people.”
- 2:13 PM · Nov 22, 2023
A recent report by the New York Times sheds light on the background story before Sam Altman’s ouster. Among the many tensions was a research paper written by Helen Toner, one of the board members who ousted Sam Altman earlier.
The paper was critical of OpenAI’s safety approach and praised Anthropic – one of OpenAI’s biggest rivals who made the AI chatbot called Claude. Altman feared it would damage OpenAI’s reputation, more so when the FTC was investigating OpenAI over training data.
Other issues were regarding vacancies of directors who had departed. Board members were not on agreeable terms as to who should fill the vacancy for key roles. On the other hand, Ilya felt Altman was not being honest, and he was overly focused on expansion rather than balancing progress and AI safety.
That’s all that happened in the last week at OpenAI. A company, largely touted as one of the most important ventures in recent history, suddenly embroiled in conflict and turmoil. In the coming days, we will get to know more about the events that resulted in this uncertain chaos. Till then, stay tuned with us!