OpenAI names new board with Microsoft as non-voting partner

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OpenAI, the AI startup behind the groundbreaking ChatGPT, has announced its new official board of directors after two weeks of turmoil in which it saw the abrupt firing and return of co-founder Sam Altman as CEO, shocking the AI industry and sparking a near-mass exodus of employees.

The company has also announced that Microsoft, its close partner and major investor, will join the board as a non-voting observer, as part of a renewed collaboration between the two tech giants.

The new board consists of three members so far: Bret Taylor, the chair of the board and the president and chief operating officer of Salesforce; Larry Summers, a former U.S. Treasury Secretary and a professor at Harvard University; and Adam D’Angelo, the co-founder and CEO of Quora and the only remaining holdout from the previous board.

One notable aspect of the new board is that it does not include any women. The most immediately prior board had two female members: Helen Toner, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and an expert on AI policy, and  technology entrepreneur Tasha McCauley, both of whom were removed following the return of Sam Altman as CEO.

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Previously on the board was also Shivon Zilis, the director of Neuralink, another Elon Musk-founded company that aims to connect human brains with computers, who quit much earlier this year. Also the board used to include Sue Yoon, a former finance officer and now director of machine learning infrastructure of Google, from September 2018 to November 2019, according to her LinkedIn.

However, Altman’s letter on the new board appointments, published on the OpenAI blog today, notes that the current all-male board “will be working very hard on the extremely important task of building out a board of diverse perspectives.”

Whether this suggests the addition of women or other gender-identifying persons at a later date remains to be seen.

Dramatic series of events

The announcement comes after a dramatic series of events that began on November 18, just days before the Thanksgiving holiday, when the previous board excepting Altman and OpenAI president Greg Brockman — leaving members Adam D’Angelo, Helen Toner, and Tasha McCauley — abruptly dismissed Altman as the CEO of OpenAI, citing a lack of candor and confidence in his leadership. 

Altman, who had co-founded OpenAI in 2015 and led its transformation from a nonprofit research lab into a world-renowned commercial startup, was shocked and saddened by the decision.

The next day, Microsoft, which had been a close partner of OpenAI and had invested billions of dollars in it, announced that it had hired Altman and Brockman, who had quit in protest, to lead its new advanced AI research team. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said he was “extremely excited” to bring on the pair and looked “forward to getting to know” the new management team at OpenAI.

On Monday, November 20, more than 500 of OpenAI’s employees, including other top executives, threatened to quit unless they got Altman back and the current board resigned. They wrote an open letter to the board, accusing them of betraying the vision and values of OpenAI and jeopardizing the future of artificial intelligence. They also demanded an independent investigation into the circumstances of Altman’s firing and the board’s actions.

New challenges for the new board

The new board faces a number of challenges and opportunities as they take over the helm of one of the most influential and innovative AI companies in the world.

They will have to balance the competing demands of advancing the frontiers of AI research and development, while ensuring the safety, accountability and transparency of their products and processes, as well as calls for increased diversity and female perspectives — even as prominent women have come forward expressing disinterest in the board seats at such a chaotic company. It probably does not help matters that Altman’s adult sister has publicly leveled accusations of childhood abuse toward him, though OpenAI has yet to address those other than to tell VentureBeat earlier they did not play a role in his initial firing.

The new OpenAI board will also have to deal with the competition with other major AI players, such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and IBM, as well as the regulatory and policy issues that affect the AI industry and society at large.

In addition, they must confront reports that OpenAI has internally made a potentially dangerous breakthrough on its quest towards artificial general intelligence (AGI) via a model known as Q* (Q star). Many at OpenAI and the wider AI research community share fears about AI superintelligence posing an existential risk (or “x risk”) to human civilization if and when it emerges, because it will be theoretically able to outsmart most people and act of its accord, which may not be one that prioritizes human life or safety. Some rumors have suggested that concerns of such existential risk may have been a driving factor in Altman’s initial firing.

And still, to this day, the question remains: why did the old board decide it was such an urgent priority to remove Altman — by most public accounts, a beloved and effective leader of the most successful generative AI company in the world to date? What was Altman not “consistently candid” with the old board about?

A new era at OpenAI begins

This whiplash-inducing series of events that led to Altman’s firing then reappointment as CEO is peak Silicon Valley madness, according to many who’ve covered technology business news for a long time.

The new board chairman, Bret Taylor, did his best to portray today’s reorganization as a show of unity, saying in a statement that the “entire OpenAI community” had come together to chart a path forward. He praised Altman and the other founders for reuniting to lead the company.

Altman posted heart emojis in lockstep on Twitter to reinforce the message. “The OpenAI team is irreplaceable — I couldn’t be happier to be back at work alongside [Sam Altman] and [Greg Brockman],” gushed Murati in a corresponding tweet.

Altman also followed up with a thread addressing conflict-of-interest concerns over Adam D’Angelo’s continued involvement with OpenAI, especially in light of the fact that D’Angelo leads a company, Quora, with a service Poe, that has a chatbot creator that rivals OpenAI’s GPT Builder.

Altman sought to assuage concerns about D’Angelo’s possible divided loyalties.

OpenAI’s organizational structure remains under the spotlight

OpenAI will continue to have a very unusual organizational structure that sets it apart from most other tech firms. Unlike most companies that are either for-profit or non-profit, OpenAI has a hybrid model that consists of two entities: OpenAI, Inc., which is a nonprofit foundation that controls the overall mission and governance of the company, and OpenAI LP, which is a capped-profit subsidiary that can raise capital and hire talent, but is legally bound to pursue the nonprofit’s mission.

The non-profit foundation has a board of directors that acts as the ultimate governing body for all OpenAI activities, including the for-profit subsidiary. The board members are a mix of OpenAI employees and external experts, who are supposed to share the vision of building safe and beneficial AGI for the common good.

The for-profit subsidiary, on the other hand, is a limited partnership that can issue equity to investors and employees, but with a cap on the returns. The cap is set at 100 times the investment, meaning that after the investors get back 100 times their money, any additional profits will go to the non-profit foundation.

The structure of OpenAI is designed to balance the need for funding and talent with the commitment to the public good, but it also creates potential conflicts and tensions between the different stakeholders and interests involved.

With that in mind, the new board of OpenAI has a lot of work to do, and a lot of expectations to meet. But they also have a lot of opportunities and resources to make a positive and lasting impact on the world. The fate of OpenAI, and perhaps of artificial intelligence itself, may depend on their decisions and actions. Whether its latest efforts will be enough to restore the trust and confidence of the AI community and the public remains to be seen — but it’s clear tonight’s announcement is at least a first step in the right direction — a unified front among OpenAI’s executive team.

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