Talks to Bring Sam Altman Back to OpenAI Stretch Through Weekend

Talks at OpenAI to bring back Sam Altman, the artificial intelligence start-up’s recently ousted CEO, continued into Sunday night, but there was disagreement over the makeup of the company’s board, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

Sir. Altman, 38, spent the weekend waging a pressure campaign on the start-up’s four-person board to oust him on Friday afternoon, three people familiar with the matter said. The result was a sea of ​​support from investors, employees and OpenAI leaders.

Mr. Altman was at OpenAI’s headquarters Sunday afternoon. He posted a photo of himself on X, formerly Twitter, wearing a guest identification badge and wrote: “first and last time I ever wear one of these.”

The talks included a look at how the company’s board might be reshaped if Mr. Altman returns as chief executive, two of the people said. Members of the board have not yet agreed on what a restructured board might look like — and Mr. Altman’s reinstatement is not inevitable, two of the people said.

Sir. Altman’s return is likely to include major changes to the board, and the company is currently evaluating candidates, according to two people familiar with the situation. Over time, the structure of the board may change to further reflect OpenAI’s evolution from a research start-up to a commercial entity with billions in revenue and huge ambitions.

But Mr. Altman and the investors still want to retain voices of people concerned about the safety of AI along with other board members with expertise in the technology and commercialization of those products, the people said.

OpenAI’s unusual governance structure, which limits its profits, could change while maintaining the checks and balances the company built on the security of its technology, the people said. The company’s priority is to get a viable board in place by Monday morning, the people said.

Altman and his supporters want the company to adopt a more traditional structure to reflect its growth into an $80 billion company with many customers and constituents, the people said. They said the events since Friday had been a wakeup call that OpenAI’s structure was no longer working.

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There has been a whirlwind of activity since Mr. Altman was forced out of OpenAI, a company he co-founded eight years ago that has become one of the most watched companies in technology thanks to its popular ChatGPT chatbot.

On Sunday afternoon, Will Hurd, a former OpenAI board member and a former Republican congressman from Texas, stood outside the company’s headquarters in San Francisco’s Mission district, waiting for a ride to the airport after spending two days digging into the details of Mr. Altman’s dismissal.

Sir. Hurd said a representative of the company had called him Friday morning before Mr. Altman’s dismissal, and asked for his help in navigating the leadership upheaval. Mr. Hurd traveled from Texas to San Francisco on Saturday.

“The industry is important, the company is important,” Mr Hurd said. “This is the future. How do we ensure that there is a level of trust and transparency? Everything we want from models, we want from management.”

OpenAI declined to comment.

OpenAI’s board has an atypical structure. The organization started as a nonprofit before transforming into a for-profit company and bringing in Microsoft as its largest investor. The for-profit corporation still answers to the nonprofit board. As a result, the company’s investors have had no official say in what happens to the startup or who leads it.

Before Mr. Altman was forced out, OpenAI had six board members, including Mr. Altman and Greg Brockman, a company co-founder and chairman, who quit on Friday in solidarity with Mr. Altman.

The other board members are Ilya Sutskever, an OpenAI co-founder; Adam D’Angelo, CEO of Quora, the question-and-answer site; Helen Toner, director of strategy at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology; and Tasha McCauley, an entrepreneur and computer scientist.

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Since Friday, people close to the company have been trying to find out why the board fired Mr. Altman. Brad Lightcap, the company’s director of operations, said in a memo to staff Saturday that there was no “wrongdoing” involved.

OpenAI’s board did not tell investors, who have poured billions into the company, what Mr. Altman did wrong. After hearing the news of his ouster, many investors began a push — in private communications and publicly via social media — to get the board to reverse its decision.

Many reached out to Microsoft because it is OpenAI’s largest shareholder and had the most influence on the company.

The dead water is the latest twist in a series of power struggles at OpenAI. The battle drew attention to a long-standing rift in the AI ​​community between people who believe AI is the biggest business opportunity in a generation and others who worry that moving too fast can be dangerous.

The company was recently in talks to raise a new round of funding that would value the company at more than $80 billion. Bloomberg News previously reported some of the details of the discussions.

Sir. Altman’s potential reinstatement would be a dramatic turnaround for OpenAI, which said he had not been “consistently honest” in his discussions with the board when it unceremoniously ousted him.

As deliberations continued Sunday, executives at OpenAI called in resources. At 12:45, a delivery boy with a dozen drinks from the Boba Guys chain appeared on a motorcycle outside with two bags. Another delivery boy followed later with half a dozen more drinks.

At 6:15 p.m., a food delivery driver pulled up at the back entrance and jumped out with four bags from McDonald’s. Two employees from OpenAI loaded them onto carts and wheeled them in for what appeared to be a long night.