OpenAI's board allegedly learned about ChatGPT launch on Twitter

Former board member Helen Toner is now speaking openly about the events that led to Sam Altman's firing last year.

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Helen Toner, one of OpenAI’s former board members who was responsible for firing CEO Sam Altman last year, revealed that the company’s board didn’t know about the launch of ChatGPT until it was released in November 2022. “[The] board was not informed in advance of that,” Toner said on Tuesday on a podcast called The Ted AI Show. “We learned about ChatGPT on Twitter.”

Toner’s comments came just two days after she criticized the way OpenAI was governed in an Economist piece that she co-wrote with Tasha McCauley, another former OpenAI board member. This is the first time that Toner has spoken openly about the circumstances that led to Altman’s dramatic ouster from the company he co-founded in 2015, and his quick reinstatement following protests from employees.

In the podcast, Toner, who is current a director of strategy at the Centre for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown, said that Altman had made it hard for OpenAI’s board to do its job by withholding information, misrepresenting things, and, “in some cases outright lying to the board.” She added that Altman also hid the company’s ownership structure from the board. “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,” Toner said. Altman’s actions “really damaged our ability to trust him,” she said, and by October 2023, the board was “already talking pretty seriously about whether we needed to fire him.”

She criticized Altman’s leadership on safety concerns around AI, saying that he often gave the board inaccurate information on the company’s safety processes, “meaning that it was basically impossible for the board to know how well those safety processes were working or what might need to change.”

When asked for comment, an OpenAI spokesperson referred Engadget to the statement the company provided to The TED AI Show. “We are disappointed that Ms. Toner continues to revisit these issues,” Bret Taylor, OpenAI’s current board chief and co-CEO of Salesforce told the podcast. An independent review of Altman’s firing, he added, “concluded that the prior board’s decision was not based on concerns regarding product safety or security, the pace of development, OpenAI’s finances, or its statements to investors, customers, or business partners.”

The exact reasons for Altman’s abrupt ouster last year were still unclear and have been a source of intense speculation in Silicon Valley. In March, Altman was reinstated to the board by a group of temporary board members which included Taylor, economist Larry Summers, OpenAI co-founder Greg Brockman, Instacart CEO and former Meta executive Fiji Simo, former Sony executive Nicole Seligman, and former CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Dr. Sue Desmond-Hellmann. In an independent investigation, law firm WilmerHale found that Toner’s decision to fire Altman along with the rest of OpenAI’s previous Board “was a consequence of a breakdown in the relationship and loss of trust between the prior Board and Mr. Altman.” WilmerHale also found that OpenAI’s previous board had fired Altman “abruptly” and without giving him a chance to respond to its concerns.

Toner’s revelations are the latest controversy that OpenAI, company that sparked off the modern AI revolution, has been involved in. Over the last few days, multiple safety researchers left the company, publicly criticizing its leadership on their way out. OpenAI also backtracked on non-disparagement agreements it had required departing employees to sign after a Vox investigation, and forced to explain itself after actor Scarlet Johansson accused the company of copying her voice for ChatGPT despite denying permission.