After a weekend of boardroom drama at OpenAI, the fate of its cofounder and ousted CEO Sam Altman is still undecided. Although Altman—along with his cofounder and former OpenAI president Greg Brockman—have accepted new jobs at Microsoft (MSFT), the move isn’t a done deal and Altman is still hoping to get his old job back, The Verge reported yesterday (Nov. 20). Top OpenAI investors are also pushing the company’s board to reinstate Altman as CEO, the Wall Street Journal reported today (Nov. 21)
Due to OpenAI’s unusual structure as a capped profit arm under a nonprofit organization, the company’s board has total control over matters like CEO appointment, even though the majority of the board don’t actually work at the company. Microsoft, which has invested $13 billion in OpenAI and owns about half of the company, has no say in corporate governance.
At the center of the ongoing crisis is OpenAI’s chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, a board member who voted to oust Altman last week but now says he regrets the decision. Over the weekend, he cosigned a letter to OpenAI’s four-person board, threatening to leave the company unless Altman is reinstated. The letter has been signed by more than 700 of OpenAI’s approximately 770 employees.
The Verge reported Altman and Brockman are willing to return to OpenAI if the remaining three board members step aside.
Who’s on OpenAI’s all-powerful board?
Atlman and Brockman both held seats on OpenAI’s board. After their exits last week, the board has four remaining members:
Ilya Sutskever, 37 or 38, is a computer scientist known for his contribution to the field of deep learning. He is one of inventors of AlexNet, a convolutional neural network architecture, and a co-author of the AlphaGo paper published in 2016. Sutskever was born in Russia and grew up in Israel, where he attended college before moving with his family to Canada.
Sutskever was a research scientist at Google Brain, an A.I. research unit of Google, from 2013 to 2015. In late 2015, Sutskever left Google to cofound OpenAI and serve as its chief scientist. He has been on the company’s board since 2015.
Adam D’Angelo, 39, is the cofounder and CEO of Quora, a question-and-answer social networking site. Before founding Quora in 2009, D’Angelo served as chief technology officer and head of engineering of Facebook, now Meta (META), from 2006 to 2008. While attending high school in the early 2000s, D’Angelo co-developed a music suggestion software called Synapse Media Player with his classmate Mark Zuckerberg, according to David Kirkpatrick’s 2010 book The Facebook Effect.
D’Angelo graduated from the California Institute of Technology in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science. He joined OpenAI’s board of directors in 2018.
Tasha McCauley is an adjunct senior management scientist at the think tank Rand Corporation, a job she started earlier this year, according to her LinkedIn profile. She is a cofounder of GeoSim Systems, a geospatial technology startup where she served as CEO until last year. In the early 2010s, McCauley was a teaching fellow in robotics and A.I. at Singularity University, which offers executive educational programs.
McCauley joined OpenAI’s board in 2018. She has been married to actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt since 2014.
Helen Toner is a director of strategy at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology since 2018. Before that, Toner spent less than a year at the University of Oxford’s Center for the Governance of AI, according to her LinkedIn profile. Between 2015 and 2018, she was a research analyst at Open Philanthropy, a nonprofit cofounded by Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz. Toner is the newest member of OpenAI’s board, joining in late 2021.
Why did the board insist on firing Altman?
OpenAI’s board fired Altman in a public announcement on Nov. 17 and reportedly gave little notice to the company’s management team, investors or Altman himself. Over the weekend, OpenAI’s leadership team pressed the board to explain what drove their abrupt decision but didn’t receive much of an answer, according to the Journal.
In a message to employees on Nov. 19, OpenAI’s board reaffirmed its decision to oust Altman and said their decision was “not about any singular incident” but because Altman has “lost the trust of the board of directors.”
Sources told the Journal one of the board’s concerns was Altman’s involvement in two outside business endeavors recently: a consumer hardware device he’s been building with Jony Ive, Apple’s former chief design officer, and an A.I. chip startup for which he’s been raising money.