Three OpenAI board members stepped down earlier this year within months of each other — yet the startup didn’t line up replacements. One of the current members, former Facebook CTO and Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo, launched an AI chatbot platform, Poe, that leverages — but also competes — with OpenAI products. And two members, Tasha McCauley and Helen Toner, have ties to the same ideological philanthropic organization.
Those are a few of the eyebrow-raising takeaways from a recent Substack post by John Loeber, the co-founder of digital brokerage company Limit, who dug through the Internet Archive and OpenAI’s tax filings to get a sense of OpenAI’s governance. His timeline paints a picture of a board whose makeup changed frequently, oftentimes without warning — precipitating today’s crisis.
Early in OpenAI’s history — circa December 2015 — OpenAI’s board consisted of two people, co-chairs Elon Musk and Sam Altman. By March 2017, the board had grown to four: Musk, Altman, Chris Clark (OpenAI’s first COO) and Holden Karnofksy, the founder of effective altruism research and grantmaking foundation Open Philanthropy.
Greg Brockman, ex-OpenAI president, joined the OpenaI board in late 2017 alongside Ilya Sutskever, OpenAI’s chief scientist. The board would shrink the subsequent year following Musk’s removal — reportedly over leadership disagreements — and Clark’s unannounced departure, but grow anew in 2018 and 2019 with the additions of D’Angelo, Google robotics projects director Sue Yoon (who’d leave only a year later), LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, tech entrepreneur Tasha McCauley and Neuralink exec Shivon Zilis.
In 2021, Republican member of the House of Representatives Will Hurd and Helen Toner, director at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technologies, joined while Karnofsky resigned. Karnofsky cited a potential conflict of interest because his wife, Daniela Amodei, a former OpenAI employee, helped to launch the AI company Anthropic.
Given that Toner previously worked as a senior research analyst at Open Philanthropy, Loeber speculates that Karnofsky might’ve endorsed her as his replacement.
This year, Hoffman stepped down from the OpenAI board to, he said, avoid possible conflicts with other investments. Zilis also resigned, as did Hurd — the latter to focus on a 2024 U.S. presidential campaign.
Then there were six: Altman, Brockman, D’Angelo, Toner, McCauley and Sutskever. As of Friday, four remained on the OpenAI board — the previous six minus Altman and Brockman. So what to make of it?
Loeber argues that D’Angelo had cause to resign given that Poe arguably competes more directly with OpenAI’s products and services, including the recently-announced GPT Studio, than even Hoffman’s investments.
McCauley, meanwhile, is a co-founder of the Center for the Governance of AI (GovAI), which is funded in part by Open Philanthropy — and she along with Toner are members of GovAI’s advisory board. Besides the fact that Anthropic is in part Open Philanthropy-funded, which has a tinge of corporate conflict to it, it’s not out of the question that McCauley and Toner are closely ideologically aligned and thus perhaps not as independently-minded on OpenAI’s board as it might initially appear.
Perhaps in the coming days and weeks, we’ll learn how these potential conflicts and interplays contributed to OpenAI’s undoing — if in fact they did at all.