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Ex-OpenAI Director Says Sam Altman Was Fired for ‘Outright Lying’ 

In this post:

  • Sam Altman was fired for lying to the OpenAI board about product development and safety.
  • Former director Helen Toner accused Altman of creating a toxic atmosphere at the firm.
  • Altman’s ‘generative AI poster boy’ reputation has taken a beating.

Former board member Helen Toner has revealed that Sam Altman was fired as OpenAI CEO because he willfully misinformed the governing board about the company’s product development and safety processes.

 Also Read: OpenAI Lines up GPT-4 Successor Amid Safety Concerns

Toner, an AI researcher and one of the directors who dismissed Altman in November, spoke about the botched boardroom coup for the first time in a May 28 interview with The TEDTalk AI Show host Bilawal Sidhu.

‘Sam Altman Lied Outrightly to the Board’

The OpenAI board was set up to keep the company grounded in public good ahead of the profit motive, Toner revealed in an interview. She said, “For years, Sam had made it really difficult for the board to do that job by withholding information, misrepresenting things that were happening at the company, in some cases outright lying to the board.”

Sam Altman was suddenly fired as CEO on Nov. 17, 2023, a decision that sent shockwaves throughout the artificial intelligence industry. Toner said the secrecy around the decision was part of a deliberate plan by the board.

According to Toner, “It was very clear to all of us that as soon as Sam had any inkling that we might do something that went against him he would pull out all the stops, do everything in his power to undermine the board, to prevent us from, you know, even getting to the point of being able to fire him. So we were very careful, very deliberate about who we told, which was essentially almost no one in advance other than, obviously, our legal team.”

Altman prevailed over the board on the optics of the November fallout, with OpenAI employees and investors, including Microsoft, decrying his dismissal. He was reinstated as CEO within a week, while chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, Toner and other ‘conspirators’ agreed to leave the board.

Altman
Sam Altman. Source: Reuters

AI Posterboy’s Reputation Takes a Beating

Altman’s reputation as the ‘generative AI poster boy’ has taken a beating in recent weeks, as former top brass, including Jan Leike, Gretchen Krueger and Tasha McCauley, questioned his leadership.

Speaking on Altman’s dismissal, Toner said the board only learned about the release of ChatGPT in November 2022 on Twitter, now X, as it had not been informed. She also accused Altman of withholding from the board that he owned the OpenAI startup fund.

Also Read: ChatGPT Still Spreads Falsehoods, Says EU Data Watchdog

“When ChatGPT came out [in] November 2022, the board was not informed in advance about that. We learned about GPT on Twitter,” Toner alleged.

She continued, saying, “Sam didn’t inform the board that he owned the OpenAI startup fund, even though he constantly was claiming to be an independent board member with no financial interest in the company.”

Further into the interview, Toner talked about Sam’s discretionary disclosure on matters relating to safety. “On multiple occasions he gave us inaccurate information about the small number of formal safety processes that the company did have in place, meaning that it was basically impossible for the board to know how well those safety processes were working or what might need to change.”

‘Toxic Atmosphere’ at OpenAI

According to Toner, some key personnel got around initial self-censorship and told the board Sam Altman could not be trusted because of the ‘toxic atmosphere’ he was creating at the company. She revealed:

“They used the phrase ‘psychological abuse,’ telling us they didn’t think he was the right person to lead the company to artificial general intelligence (AGI).”

Internal investigators into the November events recently reported that the board acted in good faith but did not foresee the instability that would follow Altman’s dismissal. The CEO has been consolidating his hold on OpenAI since November. The ‘Superalignment team‘ co-chaired by lead conspirator Sutskever was disbanded earlier this month after a series of resignations.

On Tuesday, the San Francisco-based start-up announced a new safety and security committee to be led by directors Altman, Bret Taylor (chair), Adam D’Angelo, and Nicole Seligman.

Toner’s new interview doubles down on her recent guest column for The Economist, co-authored with OpenAI ex-director, Tasha McCauley. The duo said self-governance failed to withstand the pressure of profit incentives at OpenAI.


Cryptopolitan reporting by Jeffrey Gogo

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