Sam Altman shares experience of being fired and rehired by OpenAI

After being fired by OpenAI’s board and then asked to return a day later, Sam Altman initially felt defiant, hurt, and angry.

However, he later expressed his willingness to return, stating his love for the company and its mission of safe and beneficial AGI.

Following a five-day boardroom coup, Altman officially returned as CEO of OpenAI, with Microsoft, the company’s biggest investor, planning to take a non-voting board seat.

During the interview, Altman declined to address the reason for his initial dismissal, stating that an independent investigation by OpenAI’s new board would provide the answers. He expressed his support for this investigation.

Below is the full interview with OpenAI CEO Sam Altman and CTO Mira Murati, lightly edited for clarity:

Sam, I would like to address first the elephant in the room, which is that we still don’t know exactly why you were fired to begin with. Why do you think you were fired?

Sam Altman: Altman stated that the board will conduct an independent review, and he looks forward to learning more through this process.

Why do you think the board said it lost trust in you?

Altman deflected this question, indicating that the board would be the better source to address this concern.

You said on X just now that “it’s clear that there were real misunderstandings” between yourself and members of the board. What were those misunderstandings?

Altman chose not to discuss the misunderstandings at the moment, emphasizing the importance of allowing the review process to unfold first. He expressed willingness to address the issue in the future.

Can you tell me why you can’t talk about it right now?

Altman’s response was that he preferred not to interfere with the process and wanted to let it unfold without influence.

You talked about Ilya Sutskever [OpenAI’s chief scientist] in your note [to employees]. Can you let me in a little bit on why he changed his mind and decided to side with everyone else?

Mira Murati: We don’t know. You’d have to ask Ilya that.

Sam, what was, in hindsight, the main driving force here that got you to come back?

Altman: It was really interesting. Saturday morning, some of the board called me and asked if I’d be up for talking about it. And my immediate reaction was sort of one of defiance, it was like, “Man, I’m hurt and angry, and I think this sucks.”

“It took me a few minutes to snap out of it and get over the ego and emotions”

And then pretty immediately I started thinking about like, obviously, I really loved the company and had poured my life force into this for the last four and a half years full time, but really longer than that with most of my time. And we’re making such great progress on the mission I care so much about, the mission of safe and beneficial AGI. But also the people here and all of the partners who have taken such big bets on us, and Mira and the leadership team and all of the people here who do incredible work. It took me a few minutes to snap out of it and get over the ego and emotions to then be like, “Yeah, of course I want to do that.”

So the board asked you to come back?

And you were initially hesitant?

Not for long. There’s a lot of feelings there after that happened to me.

It was clear that the employees were with you. How big of a factor do you think that was?

Definitely we have come through this with a stronger and more unified and focused and committed team. I thought we had great conviction and focus before and now I think we have like way, way, way more. So that’s my silver lining to all of this.

Throughout this whole thing, we did not lose a single employee, a single customer. Not only did they keep the products up even in the face of very difficult to manage growth, they also shipped new features. Research progress continued.

Do you want back on the board?

OpenAI, a leading artificial intelligence research lab, has recently faced questions about its governance structure and future plans. Greg Brockman, the company’s former CTO, during an interview with Andrej Karpathy, OpenAI’s director of AI, discussed the ongoing work at OpenAI and the changes that the company may undergo.

When questioned about the potential changes to the nonprofit holding company structure and the meaning behind “improving our governance structure,” Brockman emphasized that it’s not his area of focus at the moment. He highlighted the significant workload currently demanding his attention, indicating that the board-related matters are not a priority for him presently.

In response to queries about OpenAI’s approach to safety work in light of recent events, Brockman reassured that there will be no alterations, stating that the recent events do not relate to safety issues. Furthermore, when questioned about the Q* model breakthrough, Ilya Sutskever, OpenAI’s founder, declined to comment on the leaked information but reiterated the company’s commitment to rapid progress and the continuous effort to ensure the safety and benefit of AI technology.

It’s clear that OpenAI is steadfast in its pursuit of progress and remains dedicated to maximizing the beneficial impact of its technological advancements. Despite recent challenges, OpenAI remains unwavering in its commitment to advancing AI research and fostering a global dialogue to ensure responsible and impactful development in this field.

It’s evident that OpenAI is emphasizing the importance of continued progress and dialogue, despite the recent controversies. While the specific lessons learned from the saga were not explicitly stated, it’s apparent that OpenAI remains resolute in its commitment to advancing AI research responsibly and ensuring its positive impact on the world.

I don’t have a concise soundbite answer yet. There’s a lot to say, but I’m still figuring it all out. I don’t have a ready-made response, just a long, rambling answer at this point.

Okay, we’ll save for it another time.

After we hang up, Altman calls back moments later.

I learned that the company can truly function without me, and that’s a very nice thing. I’m very happy to be back, don’t get me wrong on that. But I come back without any of the stress of “Oh man, I gotta do this, or the company needs me or whatever.” I selfishly feel good because either I picked great leaders or I mentored them well. It’s very nice to feel like the company will be totally fine without me, and the team is ready and has leveled up.

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