Former OpenAI board member explains why they fired Sam Altman

Former OpenAI board member explains why they fired Sam Altman
By: Richard Lawler Posted: May 29, 2024

Former OpenAI board member explains why they fired Sam Altman
Illustration: The Verge

On November 17th, 2023, OpenAI’s board shocked everyone by suddenly ousting co-founder and CEO Sam Altman.

He had been overseeing one of the fastest-growing app launches in history with ChatGPT, so what happened? Former board member Helen Toner is filling in blank spaces in an interview on The TED AI Show podcast, providing her perspective on the events that caused board members to stop trusting Altman, as well as how he eventually returned.

In her telling, once the board decided they needed to bring in a new CEO, they felt the only way to make it happen was to go behind his back. “[I]t was very clear to all of us that as soon as Sam had any inkling that we might do something that went against him, he would pull out all the stops, do everything in his power to undermine the board, to prevent us from even getting to the point of being able to fire him,” Toner said.

Toner says that one reason the board stopped trusting Altman was his failure to tell the board that he owned the OpenAI Startup Fund; another was how he gave inaccurate info about the company’s safety processes “on multiple occasions.” Additionally, Toner says she was personally targeted by the CEO after she published a research paper that angered him. “Sam started lying to other board members in order to try and push me off the board,” she says.

After two executives spoke directly to the board about their own experiences with Altman, describing a toxic atmosphere at OpenAI, accusing him of “psychological abuse,” and providing evidence of Altman “lying and being manipulative in different situations,” the board finally made its move.

Toner cites the launch of ChatGPT itself as an example of how the board didn’t have real oversight over the company. “[W]hen ChatGPT came out November 2022, the board was not informed in advance. We learned about ChatGPT on Twitter,” says Toner.

The podcast doesn’t go into the details of what happened in the days following Altman’s firing. OpenAI rapidly shuffled through interim CEOs, employees including at least one of the board members who fired Altman pushed for his return, and OpenAI’s lead investor, Microsoft, put its support behind Altman, too.

However, Toner points out three reasons she believes the pressure to restore Altman was so strong. She claims employees were presented with only two options about how things could go (ditching the board to restore Altman or seeing the company destroyed), and since people didn’t want the company to fall apart, they supported the other one. She also says many people were scared of going against Altman after watching him retaliate against others.

Her last reason is Altman’s track record prior to OpenAI:

And I guess the last thing I would say about this is that this actually isn’t a new problem for Sam. And if you look at some of the reporting that that has come out since November. It’s come out that he was actually fired from his previous job at Y Combinator, which was hushed up at the time. And then at, you know, his job before that, which was his only other job in Silicon Valley, his startup Loopt, apparently the management team went to the board there twice and asked the board to fire him for what they called deceptive and chaotic behavior. If you actually look at his track record, he doesn’t exactly have a glowing trail of references. This wasn’t a problem specific to the personalities on the board, as much as he would love to portray it that way.

The podcast also includes a response from current OpenAI board chair Bret Taylor:

We are disappointed that Ms. Toner continues to revisit these issues. An independent committee of the board worked with the law firm Wilmer Hale, to conduct an extensive review of the events of November. The review concluded that the prior board’s decision was not based on concerns regarding product safety or security, the pace of development, OpenAI’s finances, or its statements to investors, customers, or business partners. Additionally, over 95 percent of employees, including senior leadership, asked for Sam’s reinstatement as CEO and the resignation of the prior board. Our focus remains on moving forward and pursuing OpenAI’s mission to ensure AGI benefits all of humanity.

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