Amidst the pre-Thanksgiving holiday drama at OpenAI, in which CEO Sam Altman was abruptly fired by the company’s board of directors, some of the board’s lesser-known members found themselves thrust into the spotlight. Helen Toner, a 31-year-old academic from Australia, was among them, swiftly acquiring a less-than-flattering rap online for her role in ousting the popular AI chief.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, Toner finally told her side of what had unfolded over the five-day fiasco—and accused the company of an “intimidation tactic” in an effort to get her to restore Altman to the throne.
“Our goal in firing Sam was to strengthen OpenAI and make it more able to achieve its mission,” she told the Journal, noting the company’s “very unusual organization, and the nonprofit mission—to ensure AGI benefits all of humanity—comes first.”
While Toner declined to discuss the specific details of the incident that led to Altman’s firing, she told the Journal that it wasn’t about AI safety, it was about a lack of trust. Toner and Altman had frequently clashed since she joined the board in 2021, the report said, citing anonymous sources.
As a backlash erupted over Altman’s firing, and nearly all of OpenAI’s staffers threatened to quit unless he was reinstated, Toner said that an unnamed OpenAI lawyer tried to pressure her into reversing her decision. According to Toner, the lawyer told her the board’s decision to fire Altman might result in the company’s downfall, and that if she didn’t therefore immediately resign, she would be in breach of her fiduciary duties.
But Toner defended her actions, insisting that even OpenAI’s potential self-destruction might “align with the mission” of ensuring that AGI—the term for a superintelligent AI that performs general tasks better than humans—benefits humanity.
The media meticulously chronicled Altman’s firing, with each passing hour creating a fresh headline. After Altman got the axe on that fateful Friday, reports circulated that a startled Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella immediately got to work creating a plan to reinstate Altman. The cloud giant had already poured billions of dollars into the startup, including computational power, and was working quickly to leverage that bargaining chip. Meanwhile, some investors were quick to publicly voice their displeasure.
“OpenAI’s board members’ religion of ‘effective altruism’ and its misapplication could have set back the world’s path to the tremendous benefits of artificial intelligence,” wrote early OpenAI investor Vinod Khosla, referring to Toner’s ties to the effective altruism movement, a philosophy that tends to err on the side of caution when it comes to building AGI, which appeared to be at the core of the clash.
“Our decision was about the board’s ability to effectively supervise the company, which was our role and responsibility. Though there has been speculation, we were not motivated by a desire to slow down OpenAI’s work,” Toner wrote on X after stepping down.
OpenAI’s board is now composed of former Salesforce executive Bret Taylor as chairman, Lawrence Summers, and Adam D’Angelo, with the goal of “building out a qualified and diverse board, and enhancing governance procedures consistent with the importance and complexity of OpenAI’s mission,” Taylor wrote in a post.
“I have enormous respect for the OpenAI team, and wish them and the incoming board of Adam, Bret, and Larry all the best. I’ll be continuing my work focused on AI policy, safety, and security, so I know our paths will cross many times in the coming years,” Toner posted, with Altman’s name notably absent.
This story was originally featured on Fortune.com