By Dina Bass, Emily Chang and Ashlee Vance
OpenAI’s investors are still trying to return co-founder Sam Altman to a leadership role at the ChatGPT maker, and Microsoft Corp. has signaled that it wouldn’t oppose such an outcome.
Thrive Capital, Khosla Ventures and Tiger Global Management are looking to protect their investment after the OpenAI board forced out Altman on Friday, according to people familiar with the matter. Altman is eager to return, said the people, who requested anonymity to discuss confidential negotiations.
Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella and other investors spent Saturday and Sunday trying to get Altman and former OpenAI President Greg Brockman rehired. On Sunday night, OpenAI interim CEO Mira Murati told a board member she planned to bring them back, but the directors decided instead to name former Twitch chief Emmett Shear as CEO, bypassing Murati and the investors.
Not long afterward, Microsoft, OpenAI’s biggest investor by far, said it was hiring Altman, Brockman and unnamed “colleagues” to a new artificial intelligence unit that Altman would run as CEO.
Now, it turns out, Microsoft would be amenable to Altman and Brockman returning to OpenAI — albeit with a couple of key conditions. The startup’s current board would have to resign, and OpenAI’s governance would have to change to ensure that such upheaval could never happen again, according to people familiar with the software giant’s thinking.
“Irrespective of where Sam is, he’s working with Microsoft,” Nadella said in an interview with Bloomberg Television on Monday.
Microsoft’s key goal is to ensure continued access to leading-edge AI technology for customers and partners, the people said. The company may consider asking for an increased role on OpenAI’s board, they added. Though Microsoft previously feared doing so would anger regulators, the company now believes stabilizing its partnership with OpenAI far outweighs the regulatory risks.
Investors led by Thrive Capital have been planning to offer to buy shares from OpenAI employees, through what’s known as a tender, a deal that would value the company at $86 billion. Despite the turmoil at OpenAI, Thrive, which is leading the offer, is pressing ahead with its plans, assuming it can lure Altman back to OpenAI, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. The money has not been wired yet, and if Altman doesn’t return, it could jeopardize those plans.
Tiger Global, Microsoft, OpenAI and Thrive declined to comment.
One OpenAI board member, Chief Scientist and Co-founder Ilya Sutskever, tweeted an apology Monday morning and said he regretted his role in forcing Altman’s exit. Meanwhile, most of OpenAI’s employees have threatened to quit unless Altman returns.
Still, it’s not clear Thrive and the other investors will be able to turn back the clock. For starters, some of these same people were hopeful over the weekend that they could get the OpenAI board to back down. Instead, the directors offered Altman’s old job to several Silicon Valley executives and ultimately settled on Shear.
For Altman to return, the other board members, Adam D’Angelo, co-founder and CEO of Quora; Tasha McCauley, CEO of GeoSim Systems; and Helen Toner, director of strategy and foundational research grants at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, would need to change their minds.
Vinod Khosla, co-founder at Khosla Ventures, one of OpenAI’s earliest investors, said he believes D’Angelo is dug in. “If Adam does what Ilya did then, yes, it’s a smooth path,” he said in an interview. “If he doesn’t, it’s a multi-month legal battle.” D’Angelo didn’t immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
Some investors are already mulling lawsuits against the OpenAI board, according to people familiar with their thinking.