Helen Toner, a former member of OpenAI’s board has revealed the real reason CEO Sam Altman was fired from the company last month while speaking in an interview with The Wall Street Journal

On 17 November 2023, OpenAI’s CEO Sam Altman was abruptly removed from the AI startup he founded, which the company’s board said was due to “a lack of consistently candid communication”.

Altman has now been reinstated to his original position and one of the board members who had moved to fire him, Helen Toner, has now revealed what happened behind the scenes, now that she is no longer a part of the company following Altman’s return.

While speaking to The Wall Street Journal, she said that the decision had nothing to do with AI safety, but rather a lack of trust. She explained: “Our goal in firing Sam was to strengthen OpenAI and make it more able to achieve its mission.”

Toner went on to clarify her earlier comment, which implied that the board’s mission might be served even if OpenAI were to fail after Altman’s removal. She indicated that this remark was a reaction to what she perceived as “intimidation tactics” by an OpenAI attorney.

She emphasized that the existence of OpenAI’s for-profit division is not inherently essential for the achievement of the organization’s non-profit objectives. OpenAI’s primary mission, as she outlined, is to develop Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) in a way that brings benefits to humanity.

Toner chose not to reveal the specific reasons for Altman’s dismissal. Nevertheless, she stood by the board’s decision, emphasizing that it was aligned with their commitment to ensuring AI systems are developed responsibly. Following these events, Toner, along with other board members, resigned, which ultimately led to Altman being reappointed as CEO.

One of the main reasons Altman was fired was also due to his criticism of Toner’s paper which she wrote to criticize OpenAI and the hype it created around ChatGPT. In the same paper she co-authored, Toner also praised OpenAI’s rival Anthropic for taking its time before releasing its chatbot Claude.

According to reports, Altman is said to have conducted individual meetings with board members, leveraging their statements to orchestrate Toner’s dismissal. This narrative is supported by The Wall Street Journal, which references sources familiar with the matter. They suggest that Altman’s actions led to misinformation being given to Toner, subsequently causing the board to doubt his integrity in his role as CEO.

Image credit: Fortune