Sam Altman’s return to OpenAI is not completely off the cards, according to insider sources.
In an internal memo obtained by Bloomberg News, Anna Makanju, Vice President of Global Affairs at OpenAI, communicated to staff the ongoing “intense discussions” to stabilize the company. That might include returning ex-CEO Sam Altman to the company in some form.
Makanju’s memo revealed that OpenAI management is “in touch with Altman, Shear, and the board,” but they are not prepared to give a final response this evening. The memo from Makanju doesn’t offer details on the nature of discussions with Altman.
OpenAI’s investors, led by Thrive Capital, are also actively working to facilitate Altman’s return, with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella expressing no opposition to this possibility in a Bloomberg Television interview.
According to Bloomberg, the negotiations include considerations for Altman to rejoin as a director on a transitional board. Former Salesforce co-CEO Bret Taylor may join Altman on the new board.
Some 700 of OpenAI’s 770 staff signed a letter threatening to resign, throwing the company into turmoil. These employees demand the board’s resignation and the rehiring of Altman, who Microsoft has since recruited to head a new AI team with former co-founder Greg Brockman.
Kevin Scott, Microsoft’s CTO, has publicly stated that OpenAI employees will have a position waiting for them at Microsoft if they choose to leave, fueling accusations that Microsoft stands to tactically benefit from OpenAI’s potential downfall.
To my partners at OpenAI: We have seen your petition and appreciate your desire potentially to join Sam Altman at Microsoft’s new AI Research Lab. Know that if needed, you have a role at Microsoft that matches your compensation and advances our collective mission.
— Kevin Scott (@kevin_scott) November 21, 2023
Setting precedents for commercial AI governance
OpenAI’s conflict has ignited debate on whether the primary objective of AI development should be to pursue commercial opportunities.
The decision by OpenAI’s board to remove Altman seems to be rooted in disagreements over AI safety and Altman’s external ventures. However, the governance structure of OpenAI – a nonprofit board overseeing a for-profit entity – may prove insufficient to counterbalance Altman’s influence.
On one side of this debate are Sam Altman, the former CEO, and Greg Brockman, who has advocated for a strategy emphasizing rapid growth and monetization.
Their stance is based on the belief that for OpenAI to continue expanding its operations and capabilities, it must actively seek revenue-generating opportunities.
On the other hand, some OpenAI board members, according to Bloomberg, expressed reservations about the company’s rapid commercialization in 2023.
This is probably a simplified dichotomy, but it’s an interesting way of assessing the situation and the potency of populist opinion to force a company’s governance to change its minds.
Industry experts, policymakers, and the public will closely observe the decisions made as they will set precedents for the future of AI development and governance.