In the aftermath of Sam Altman’s sudden ousting from OpenAI on November 17, a narrative emerged depicting his dismissal as a coup, with many employees and members of the tech community expressing shock and dissatisfaction. However, as new details have surfaced in the weeks following, a more nuanced understanding of the situation has begun to take shape.
Initial reports cited Altman’s lack of consistency in communication with the board as the reason behind his firing. However, recent revelations suggest a more complex scenario. Altman is portrayed as a shrewd corporate player who manipulated situations within OpenAI to maintain his standing. Reports indicate that Altman played board members against each other, especially those who disagreed with his aggressive approach to AI technology deployment.
One notable clash involved board member Helen Toner, whose paper praising OpenAI’s rival Anthropic and criticizing the release strategy of ChatGPT drew Altman’s ire. Altman allegedly warned Toner about potential issues with the Federal Trade Commission, creating tensions between them. Altman also reportedly sowed discord between Toner and another board member, Tasha McCauley.
Differences with OpenAI’s chief scientist, Ilya Sutskever, over the rapid development of AI technology and organizational decisions further escalated tensions. Altman’s promotion of a researcher to a level equivalent to Sutskever’s triggered a protest, with Sutskever threatening to quit. Board members, with backgrounds in nonprofits or academia, found Altman’s tech executive approach disingenuous and calculated.
The board’s decision to remove Altman was characterized by secrecy, reflecting concerns that Altman would undermine the process if forewarned. In a meeting with OpenAI staff after his ousting, Sutskever mentioned Altman providing conflicting opinions about a member and assigning the same project to two different people.
Despite these allegations, Altman was swiftly reinstated, indicating support from the broader organization, including OpenAI executives and staff. However, dissenting voices, particularly from senior leaders who approached the board with grievances, suggest internal divisions persist. Altman’s rapid reinstatement may underscore the influence of powerful backers like Microsoft, but it also signals a need for Altman to address and reshape his image within the company.