Former OpenAI Board Member Dishes on Reasons Why They Ousted Sam Altman

Denis Balibouse/Reuters
Denis Balibouse/Reuters

When OpenAI co-founder Sam Altman was ousted as the firm’s CEO last fall, the decision was hard to unravel. At the time, the board issued a vague statement saying he hadn’t been “consistently candid,” but Altman eventually won the boardroom battle and was reinstated after employees rallied to his side.

Now, former board member Helen Toner is explaining her decision. In a new podcast interview, the artificial intelligence researcher blasted Altman’s lack of transparency and said the board was kept in the dark about key decisions. She accused Altman of “withholding information, misrepresenting things that were happening in the company, [and] in some cases outright lying to the board.”

Toner said she could not publicly reveal every alleged deception, but she offered several examples. For instance, when OpenAI’s flagship product, ChatGPT, debuted in November 2022, she said, the board did not know in advance that it would be launched. “We learned about ChatGPT on Twitter,” she said.

Separately, she continued, “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.”

OpenAI Co-Founder Who Helped Lead Coup Against Altman Is Officially Leaving

Safety was also one of her major concerns, she said. “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.”Toner also touched on an artificial intelligence research paper she had written; some press accounts previously said Altman had been angry that the paper painted OpenAI in bad light.

The issue was slightly overblown in the media, Toner said. The larger problem in her mind was that “Sam started lying to other board members in order to try and push me off the board.”

“It was another example that just, like, really damaged our ability to trust him,” she said. At that point, board members had already discussed whether Sam needed to be ousted.

Toner said that Altman was always able to downplay “any individual case” and would provide “some kind of, like, innocuous sounding explanation of why it wasn’t a big deal, or misinterpreted or whatever.”Over the course of years, however, “all four of us who hired him came to the conclusion that we just couldn’t believe things that Sam was telling us. And that’s a completely unworkable place to be in as a board, but especially a board that is supposed to be providing independent oversight over the company, not just like, you know, helping the CEO to raise more money.”

Altman did not immediately respond to a text message seeking comment.

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