Triumphant OpenAI CEO spends a whole interview dodging questions about why he was fired like he's in The Matrix, but does suggest the nonprofit board is in for some big changes

Sam Altman testifying on capital hill.
(Image credit: Getty Images - Anadolu Agency)

One of the year's most breakneck technology stories was OpenAI's CEO and co-founder Sam Altman being fired by the company's board, then being reinstated after a few days of will-they-or-won't-they back-and-forth. Over those days Altman was the subject of considerable professional backingfrom OpenAI investor Microsoft (which straight-up offered him a job) and OpenAI's own staff, the vast majority of whom signed an open letter calling for his reinstatement. The firing was announced on the afternoon of Friday 17 November: Altman was back in the role by the following Wednesday.

The big mystery is why Altman was fired in the first place. Speculation abounds, and given this is all about AI, can get somewhat lurid. Dark rumours swirled of an advanced piece of software codenamed Q* (pronounced "Q-Star", apparently) capable of solving simple math problems: a potential breakthrough in the search for a general artificial intelligence, and something the board was reportedly told of shortly before Altman was fired. More prosaically, some noted a potential clash between OpenAI's not-for-profit mission and Altman's desire to push the commercial side of its software (OpenAI has a for-profit subsidiary). But no one knows exactly what went down, or at least no one's talking.

Judging by Altman's first peek above the parapet since the whole saga began, no one is going to know for some time to come. Altman granted an interview to the Verge, in which the first five questions are basically about why he was fired, and all he has to say for himself is there's an independent review, these are questions for the board, I'm not ready to talk, let's all get "forward-looking" here.

Altman did say on X that "there were real misunderstandings” between himself and the board, but when asked about them executes another champion dodge: "I imagine there will be some time where I’m very happy to talk about what happened here, but not now."

More questions follow: why can't you talk about it? "I just want to let this process go and not interfere." OpenAI interim CEO Mira Murati is also sitting in on the call and deflects another question about the firing decision. Altman's happy to talk about his re-hiring and the sunlit uplands of the future, but won't go near the question everyone wants an answer to.

Altman does at least give an insight into what was going on behind-the-scenes. "Saturday morning, some of the board called me and asked if I’d be up for talking about [returning]," says Altman. "And my immediate reaction was sort of one of defiance. It was like, 'Man, I’m hurt and angry, and I think this sucks.' It took me a few minutes to snap out of it and get over the ego and emotions."

He goes on to talk about OpenAI's priority mission being "safe and beneficial AI," makes it clear the board asked him to come back ("yeah"), and says his "silver lining" is how focused this has made OpenAI's staff. Asked if he wants to get back on the board, Altman says "it’s not my area of focus right now" which one can probably interpret as 'yes, I'm biding my time.'

If you're thinking that the CEO of OpenAI sounds like a talking AI, you're not alone. But things do get a little spicier when, of all things, Altman is pressured a little about the company's structure. The extremely simplified version is that OpenAI was founded as a nonprofit, but has a commercial arm established in 2019, and everything is overseen by an external board with responsibility for upholding the company's loftier principles.

Well: maybe not for too much longer. Asked if the nonprofit holding company structure is going to change, Altman initially deflects to the board before basically saying: yeah, probably.

"The honest answer is [the board] need time, and we will support them in this to really go off and think about it. Clearly, our governance structure had a problem. And the best way to fix that problem is going to take a while. And I totally get why people want an answer right now. But I also think it’s totally unreasonable to expect it."

Totally unreasonable to want answers about what the world's biggest AI company is doing? We silly little meatbags! "Designing a really good governance structure, especially for such an impactful technology, is not a one-week question," says Altman. "It’s going to take a real amount of time for people to think through this, to debate, to get outside perspectives, for pressure testing. That just takes a while."

Altman notably refers to the Q* report from Reuters as "that unfortunate leak," which is not the same as calling it untrue. He goes on to say more generally that "we expect progress in this technology to continue to be rapid and also that we expect to continue to work very hard to figure out how to make it safe and beneficial... I think we have been extraordinarily consistent on that."

Altman ends on some feel-good thoughts about how this whole saga showed the company could manage without him (it didn't), how happy he is to be back, and the standard line about how ready everyone is. But as for the real questions, well. It's no wonder ChatGPT can dodge the wrong kind of question so skillfully. It's been created by masters.

Rich Stanton

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."