In interviews on CNBC and Bloomberg TV tonight, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella made it clear that it’s possible Sam Altman, who was fired from his role as CEO at OpenAI by the AI startup’s board of directors on Friday, could return to OpenAI in some capacity.
That’s despite the fact that Altman announced this morning that he intended to join a newly-formed AI research team at Microsoft alongside ex-OpenAI president Greg Brockman and several former OpenAI researchers.
“Obviously, we want Sam and Greg to have a fantastic home if they’re not going to be in OpenAI,” Nadella said in an interview on CNBC. Asked whether Altman would return to OpenAI, Nadella added: “That’s for, you know, [the] OpenAI board and management and the employees to choose … [Microsoft] chose to explicitly partner with OpenAI [and] obviously that depends on the people at OpenAI staying there or coming to Microsoft, so I’m open to both options.”
Nadella’s responses seemingly confirm reporting earlier today from The Verge, which suggested that Altman’s move to Microsoft wasn’t a done deal and that — with the recent change of heart from OpenAI chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, the reported mastermind behind Altman’s departure — only two of OpenAI’s three remaining board members need to flip to bring back Altman. (Brockman was deposed as the board’s chairman on Friday, and Altman formerly held the sixth seat.)
Nadella also said that Microsoft would want to see “something change around the governance” at OpenAI going forward, including around its investor relations. (Microsoft, along with OpenAI’s other backers and most of OpenAI’s employees, are said to have been notified of Altman’s sacking “minutes” before it was made public.) OpenAI is governed by a nonprofit to which the board belongs, and investors — including Microsoft, which has poured over $10 billion into OpenAI to date — don’t have seats on said board.
“It’s clear something has to change around the governance — we’ll have a good dialogue with their board on that, and walk through that as that evolves,” Nadella said on CNBC.
It’s been a rollercoaster at OpenAI since Altman’s firing, to say the least.
Over the weekend, OpenAI’s management team and backers — including CTO Mira Murat, who was briefly appointed interim CEO — began vetting candidates to replace the board for Altman’s possible return. Meanwhile, the board conducted its own CEO search, eventually settling on Emmett Shear, the co-founder of Twitch, after GitHub CEO Nat Friedman and Scale AI CEO Alex Wang declined offers.
Shear, who has a colorful history, turned out to be a controversial choice internally. Employees reportedly refused to attend an emergency all-hands scheduled on Sunday with Shear, responding to the announcement in OpenAI’s Slack with a “fuck you” emoji.
OpenAI’s rank-and-file, speaking of, is in widespread revolt — more than 700 of the company’s roughly 770 employees, including Sutskever, have signed a letter calling for the board to resign and reinstate Altman. Among others, Salesforce has attempted to use the unrest as a recruitment opportunity, offering matching compensation to any researcher who’s quit OpenAI to join Salesforce AI research team.
Not helping matters is the board’s reluctance to give detailed reasoning for firing Altman. Shear said in a note to employees Sunday that his first order of business would be to “hire an independent investigator to dig into the entire process leading up to this point and generate a full report.”