Interview: Sam Altman on being fired and rehired by OpenAI – The Verge

When OpenAI’s board asked Sam Altman to return the day after he was fired, he initially felt defiant, hurt and angry.

“It took me a few minutes to get out of the situation, get over my ego and my feelings, and then think, ‘Yeah, of course I want to do this,’” he told me by phone Wednesday. “Of course, I really loved the company and have put my entire life energy into it for the last four and a half years, but most of the time even longer. And we are making such great progress toward the mission that I care so deeply about, the mission of safe and useful AGI.”

After a five-day boardroom coup attempt, Altman officially returned as CEO of OpenAI on Wednesday. The company’s largest investor, Microsoft, also plans to take a non-voting seat on the board.

During our interview, Altman repeatedly refused to answer the most important question on all of our minds: Why exactly was he fired in the first place? OpenAI’s new board, led by Bret Taylor, will conduct an independent investigation into the incidents. “I really welcome that,” Altman told me.

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

Sam, I want to start by addressing the issue in the room, which is that we still don’t know exactly why you were fired in the first place. Why do you think you were fired?

Sam Altman: The board will carry out an independent review here. I very much welcome that. I don’t have much more to say now, but I look forward to learning more.

Why do you think the board said they had lost confidence in you?

That would be a better question for her.

You said on X Right now it is “clear that there were real misunderstandings” between you and the board members. What were these misunderstandings?

I don’t feel ready to talk about it yet. I think it’s very important to keep this review process going. I’m happy to talk about anything future-oriented. And I imagine there will be a time when I’ll be very happy to talk about what happened here, but not now.

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

I just want to let this process happen and not get involved.

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

Mira Murati: We do not know it. You would have to ask Ilya.

Sam, looking back, what was the main reason you came back?

Altman: It was very interesting. On Saturday morning, some board members called me and asked if I would be willing to talk about it. And my immediate reaction was a kind of defiance, like, “Man, I’m hurt and angry and I think this sucks.”

“It took me a few minutes to get out of the situation and overcome my ego and emotions.”

And then I pretty much immediately started thinking about the fact that I obviously really liked the company and that I’ve been putting my entire life energy into this company full-time for the last four and a half years, but most of the time longer. And we are making such great progress on the mission that I care so deeply about: the mission of safe and useful AGI. But also the people here and all the partners who have put so much into us, and Mira and the management team and all the people here who are doing incredible work. It took me a few minutes to get out of the situation, get over my ego and emotions, and then think, “Yes, of course I want to do this.”

So the board asked you to come back?

And were you hesitant at first?

Not for long. There are a lot of feelings after this happened to me.

It was clear that the employees had your back. What impact do you think that had?

In any case, we have overcome this with a stronger, more unified, more focused and more committed team. I thought we had great conviction and focus before, and now I think we have much, much, much more. So that’s my silver lining in all of this.

We didn’t lose a single employee or customer. Not only did they keep the products current despite very difficult growth, but they also delivered new features. Research progress continued.

Do you want to get back on the board?

This is going to sound like a PR issue: it’s not my focus at the moment. I have a mountain of very difficult, important and urgent work. I want to be able to do my job well, but that’s not the case [being] on the board or not. I’m not thinking about that at the moment.

What does “Improving our governance structure” mean? Will the nonprofit holding company structure change?

“I completely understand why people want an answer right now. But I also think it’s completely unreasonable to expect that.”

That’s a better question for board members, but not right now. The honest answer is that they need time and we will support them to really think about it. Clearly our governance structure had a problem. And the best way to fix this problem will take a while. And I completely understand why people want an answer right now. But I also think it’s completely unreasonable to expect that.

Why do you think this is unreasonable? I think people see a lot of ambiguity about what happened. And it seems like it was a matter of disagreement, not abuse of authority or anything like that.

Oh, just because designing a really good governance structure, especially for such an impactful technology, isn’t a one-week question. It’s going to take a lot of time for people to think about it, debate it, get outside perspectives and push the envelope. That just takes a while.

Is anything changing in OpenAI’s approach to security work because of the events that just unfolded?

Murati: No. This has nothing to do with security.

The reports about the breakthrough in the Q* model what you all did recently, what’s going on?

Altman: No particular comment on this unfortunate leak. But what we said – two weeks ago, what we say today, what we said a year ago, what we said before – is that we expect that progress in this technology will continue to be rapid, and it will be We expect to continue to work very hard to figure out how to make it safe and beneficial. That’s why we got up earlier every day. That’s why we will get up every day in the future. I think we have been extremely consistent in our approach.

Without commenting on a specific thing, project or whatever, we believe that progress is research. You can always hit a wall, but we expect progress to continue to be significant. And we want to talk to the world about it and figure out how we can make it the best it can be.

Last question: I’m sure you’re still thinking this all through. I know it’s very fresh. What lesson have you learned from this whole saga?

I don’t think I have a suitable, succinct and succinct answer yet. Obviously a lot, but I’m still stumbling over it. I mean, there’s definitely going to be a lot to say, but I don’t think I’m ready for it… All I have at this point is a long, rambling answer.

Okay, we’ll save for that another time.

After we hang up, Altman calls back a moment later.

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

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