Friday, Sam Altman was fired from OpenAI, and as of Saturday, there is already talk of his return. This rapid and unexpected turnaround at the head of one of the most innovative companies in AI highlights major governance problems.
The tech world was treated to quite a surprise: Sam Altman, the CEO and co-founder of OpenAI (GPT, ChatGPT, Dall-E…), was fired by his board of directors. The news, which fell on Friday evening, took the entire sector by surprise. According to a statement from OpenAI relayed by The Verge, the board has lost confidence in Altman’s ability to lead the company. The exact reasons for this decision remain unclear, but rumors are circulating on the Internet.
The announcement came as a shock, particularly to Microsoft, OpenAI’s main investor, which was reportedly informed just before the news became public. The move also led to a wave of resignations within OpenAI, including among key employees and AI experts, who chose to follow Sam Altman.
And now we’re talking about a comeback?
Just 24 hours after announcing his dismissal, The Verge revealed that OpenAI’s board of directors would consider bringing Altman back. This situation is all the more surprising since Altman and the other resigners had already expressed their intention to create a new entity. This turnaround raises questions about the stability of OpenAI’s governance and the decisions made by its board of directors.
A source close to Sam Altman revealed to The Verge that OpenAI’s board initially agreed to resign to allow the return of Sam Altman and Greg Brockman, but has since shown signs of hesitation. This indecision became especially critical in the face of a 5 p.m. PT deadline, when many OpenAI employees were ready to quit. If Sam Altman ultimately decides to leave OpenAI to start a new company, it is very likely that these employees will follow him.
Altman’s discussions with OpenAI, which came just a day after his firing, appear to indicate that the company is in trouble without him. Shortly after his ouster, Greg Brockman, OpenAI’s president and former chairman of the board, also resigned. Sam Altman and Greg Brockman soon began talking with friends and investors about starting another company. On top of that, a group of senior researchers left OpenAI on Friday, and sources close to the company suggest more departures are expected.
Despite this chaotic situation, Sam Altman seems ambivalent about the idea of returning to the head of OpenAI. On the one hand, his return could stabilize the company, but on the other, he envisages the creation of a new structure.
OpenAI in the midst of a crisis
This episode reveals a major governance problem at OpenAI, a company considered a major player in the future of AI. Despite the uncertainty, Sam Altman has opportunities to bounce back elsewhere, as suggested by the invitation from the French digital minister to join their new AI laboratory, Kyutai, financed by Xavier Niel and Rodolphe Saadé.
The situation is reminiscent of Apple’s firing of Steve Jobs in 1985, who had to wait 12 years to return. However, a potential return of Altman to OpenAI within hours of his departure would make the comparison between these two stories less obvious.