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Microsoft gets OpenAI board seat as a non-voting observer

Sam Altman has taken the helm of the artificial intelligence firm again: ‘Books are going to be written about this’

Sam Altman, OpenAI's
OpenAI's Sam Altman; San Francisco, California; November 6, 2023.JUSTIN SULLIVAN (Getty Images via AFP)
Miguel Jiménez

It’s official. One week after the initial agreement, OpenAI announced on November 29 that Sam Altman has taken the helm of the company again. However, he won’t be a member of its board of directors. Adam D’Angelo (the only member of the board that ousted Altman) remains in place, and is joined by Bret Taylor (the new board chairperson) and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers. One notable change is that Microsoft now gets a board seat as a non-voting member. OpenAI’s official announcement was accompanied by a message from Altman that expressed his gratitude and clarified his priorities. After a hectic couple of weeks, Altman said, “I am sure books are going to be written about this time period.”

One priority is to improve OpenAI’s governance after the small size of its board of directors endangered the leading AI company. Taylor, Summers and D’Angelo are now tasked with building out a board of diverse perspectives, improving the company’s governance structure and overseeing an independent review of recent events. “I look forward to working closely with them on these crucial steps so everyone can be confident in the stability of OpenAI,” said Altman.

Altman’s message hinted at a significant change in OpenAI’s relationship with Microsoft, and praised CEO Satya Nadella and his team for their support: “[They] have been incredible partners throughout this, with exactly the right priorities all the way through. They’ve had our backs and were ready to welcome all of us if we couldn’t achieve our primary goal. We clearly made the right choice to partner with Microsoft and I’m excited that our new board will include them as a non-voting observer.”

Microsoft has made a substantial $13 billion investment in OpenAI, but that didn’t give them access to inside information, as they only heard about Altman’s termination moments before it was publicly announced. Given Microsoft’s significant stake in OpenAI, the company understandably wants to avoid unpleasant surprises and will seek additional assurances. Money undoubtedly played a decisive role in resolving this crisis — OpenAI’s valuation will make many employees very rich if it goes public, and the company needs to attract more investment to fund its expensive research. Along with the governance improvements, Altman said his other immediate priorities are to advance the company’s research plan while investing in AI safety, and continuing to improve and deploy products to serve customers.

Altman is returning to OpenAI as CEO, and Mira Murati will return to her role as chief technology officer. Greg Brockman, a co-founder of OpenAI and Altman ally, will become president of the company without a seat on the board. “I have never been more excited about the future,” said Altman. “I am extremely grateful for everyone’s hard work in an unclear and unprecedented situation, and I believe our resilience and spirit set us apart in the industry. I feel so, so good about our probability of success for achieving our mission.”

“To all of you, our team: I am sure books are going to be written about this time period, and I hope the first thing they say is how amazing the entire team has been. Now that we’re through all of this, we didn’t lose a single employee. You stood firm for each other, this company, and our mission. One of the most important things for the team that builds AGI [artificial generative intelligence] safely is the ability to handle stressful and uncertain situations, and maintain good judgment throughout. Top marks. Thank you all.” Altman was so effusive in his message that he even thanked those who ousted him, as well as Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, who stepped in to help negotiate a solution to the crisis.

Helen Toner, one of the board members who supported Altman’s removal, resigned on November 29 and promptly began tweeting her defense. “Much has been written about the last week or two; much more will surely be said. For now, the incoming board has announced it will supervise a full independent review to determine the best next steps… To be clear: our decision was about the board’s ability to effectively supervise the company, which was our role and responsibility. Though there has been speculation, we were not motivated by a desire to slow down OpenAI’s work.”

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