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Sam Altman OpenAI Firing Tied to “Psychological Abuse” Says Ex-Board Member

Last Updated May 30, 2024 1:29 PM
James Morales
Last Updated May 30, 2024 1:29 PM

Key Takeaways

  • Former OpenAI Board Member Helen Toner has broken her silence about the events surrounding Sam Altman’s termination and subsequent reinstatement as CEO.
  • In a podcast, Toner claimed Altman oversaw a toxic workplace culture.
  • Toner’s Allegations aren’t the first time Altman has been accused of being a horrible boss.

Six months after Sam Altman was fired and then rehired as the CEO of OpenAI, the underlying reason for last November’s events remains unclear.

At the time, OpenAI’s board blamed a breakdown of trust. But since then, multiple employees have said that Altman’s alleged disregard for AI safety contributed to his ouster. Now, former board member Helen Toner has cited another reason: psychological abuse.

Sam Altman a Toxic Boss?

In a recent podcast , Toner said that claims of “psychological abuse” on Altman’s part were one of the reasons the Board moved to force him out.

According to her version of events, the final straw that broke the camel’s back was when two executives came forward to complain about Altman’s behavior.

“We had this series of conversations with these executives, where the two of them suddenly started telling us about their own experiences with Sam, which they hadn’t felt comfortable sharing before, but telling us how they couldn’t trust him, about the toxic atmosphere he was creating.”

In contrast with the image of a progressive Silicon Valley entrepreneur he likes to present in public, Toner paints a picture of Altman as a horrible boss:

“They used the phrase psychological abuse, telling us they didn’t think he was the right person to lead the company to AGI, telling us they had no belief that he could or would change, no point in giving him feedback, no point in trying to work through these issues.” 

“A Pattern of Deceit and Manipulation”

Significantly, Toner isn’t the first person to raise concerns over Altman’s leadership style.

In November, a letter  that was purportedly sent to the OpenAI board by a group of former employees accused him of overseeing a “systematic silencing of dissent” that “created an environment of fear and intimidation.”

“Throughout our time at OpenAI,” it continues, “we witnessed a disturbing pattern of deceit and manipulation by Sam Altman and [OpenAI President] Greg Brockman.”

Had the letter simply appeared online anonymously it would have been easy to disregard. But its credibility was given a major boost after it was shared online by OpenAI cofounder and former board member Elon Musk. (Although Musk and Altman’s growing public feud must also be considered.)

OpenAI Board Weren’t Informed Ahead of ChatGPT Launch

One recurring theme that connects the anonymous letter and Toner’s latest revelations is Altman’s purported dishonesty.

Even before the allegations of abuse surfaced, Toner described how the Board had already been considering firing the OpenAI CEO for repeatedly lying about what was going on at the company.

“For years Sam had made it really difficult [for the Board] by withholding information, misrepresenting things that were happening at the company, and in some cases even outright lying,” she said.

Among the infringements she listed, Toner claimed that OpenAI board members weren’t informed about the launch of ChatGPT ahead of time and had to learn about it on Twitter (now X).

She also charged Altman with hiding his ownership of the OpenAI startup fund and giving the Board inaccurate information about the company’s safety processes.

A Failure of the Non-Profit Model

While Toner listed multiple grievances,  Sam Altman’s role in transforming OpenAI into a for-profit company stands out.

Without criticizing the decision per se, in a recent article  penned for the Economist, she articulated her belief that “self-governance cannot reliably withstand the pressure of profit incentives.” And if self-governance is measured by the ability of independent oversight bodies to dismiss wayward executives, Altman’s ultimate reinstatement as CEO seems to prove Toner’s point. 

Similar concerns over the way OpenAI turned away from its original structure as a purely non-profit enterprise also stand behind Musk’s legal challenge against the company.

Meanwhile, the letter discussed above depicts widespread resentment among former OpenAI employees who have apparently left the company in droves after it turned into something they didn’t sign up for.

Echoing Toner’s criticism, it claims that OpenAI “deliberately isolates employees from overseeing the for-profit operations, precisely due to their inherent conflicts of interest.”

In a damning indictment of the company’s existing oversight structure, it concludes that Altman and his ally Brockman essentially operate with impunity, “shielded from accountability,” by an opaque and ineffective system of self-governance.

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