May 20, 2024

Investigation by outside law firm into Altman’s firing finds his conduct ‘did not mandate removal.’

OpenAI’s chief executive Sam Altman will return to the company’s board of directors after a probe into his brief sacking and subsequent rehiring.

An investigation by law firm WilmerHale found that Altman’s conduct “did not mandate his removal” last year, OpenAI said in a blog post on Friday.

Altman’s firing was instead due to a “breakdown in the relationship and loss of trust” between the 38-year-old entrepreneur and the previous board, the company said.

OpenAI said it had “full confidence” in Altman’s ongoing leadership at the artificial intelligence startup after reviewing the law firm’s findings.

“WilmerHale found that the prior Board acted within its broad discretion to terminate Mr. Altman, but also found that his conduct did not mandate removal,” the company said in a summary of the report.

The ChatGPT maker said Altman would be joined by three new board members: Nicole Seligman, a former CEO of Sony Entertainment; Fidji Simo, the CEO of Instacart; and Sue Desmond-Hellmann, a former CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The company also said it would also be making “important improvements” to its governance structure, including adopting new corporate governance guidelines and creating a whistleblower hotline.

The announcement caps a dramatic period of upheaval that saw Altman briefly fired as CEO in November amid claims by the board that he had failed to be “consistently candid in his communications”.

While Altman was reinstated as CEO just two weeks after his removal, he did not regain his seat on the board at the time.

Although OpenAI has not publicly commented on the source of tensions within the company, media outlets including Bloomberg and the New York Times have reported that Altman’s removal stemmed from frictions over the balance between harnessing the potential of AI and guarding against its risks.

Altman on Friday expressed regret about his handling of disagreements at the company and said he had learned from the experience.

“When I believed a former board member was harming OpenAI through some of their actions, I should have handled that situation with more grace and care,” he said in a post on X.

“I apologise for this, and I wish I had done it differently. I assume a genuine belief in the crucial importance of getting [artificial general intelligence] right from everyone involved.”

Ex-board members Helen Toner and Tasha McCauley, who voted to fire Altman before being pushed out upon his return, wished OpenAI and the new board success while stressing the need for accountability when dealing with “potentially world-changing” technology.

“We hope the new board does its job in governing OpenAI and holding it accountable to the mission,” Toner and McCauley said in a statement posted on X.

“As we told the investigators, deception, manipulation, and resistance to thorough oversight should be unacceptable.”

OpenAI has become a lightning rod for the hopes and fears surrounding generative AI through its release of models capable of generating human-like speech and photo-realistic videos.

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