Sam Altman: the OpenAI CEO leading the AI revolution

The Silicon Valley entrepreneur is pushing AI into the mainstream while actively warning of its dangers

Profile shot of OpenAI CEO Sam Altman
Altman believes he’s done a ‘great public service’ by releasing ChatGPT despite the risks
(Image credit: Joel Saget/Getty Images)

The launch of ChatGPT last November propelled OpenAI, and its co-founder and CEO Sam Altman, into the global spotlight.

The generative AI tool “had the world’s imagination like nothing in tech’s recent history”, said The Atlantic, and, for Altman, this was “a moment of triumph”, despite the possible dangers the technology could pose.

OpenAI was created as a non-profit with the “noble” aim of developing AI while making sure “it doesn’t wipe out humanity”, said Sky News. Altman, “a tech whizz before he left primary school”, founded the start-up in 2015 alongside Elon Musk.

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Despite The Atlantic saying that Altman has “zero regrets about letting ChatGPT loose into the world”, Sky News added that his “worst fears” are tech companies causing “significant harm to the world”. For that reason, he’s advocated for government regulation, which would be “critical to mitigate the risks”.

Who is Sam Altman?

Altman grew up in St Louis, Missouri, where he learned to program and “disassemble” a Macintosh when he was eight years old, said Tad Friend in The New Yorker. The Mac “became his lifeline to the world”, and Altman, who came out as gay to his parents at 16, told the publication that “finding AOL chat rooms was transformative”.

He attended John Burroughs School and “changed the whole school”, according to Madelyn Gray, the college counsellor, when he “addressed the whole community, announcing that he was gay” after a Christian group boycotted a school assembly about sexuality. He asked whether the school wanted to be “a repressive place or one open to different ideas”.

Altman made his way to Stanford to study computer science, but dropped out after two years. He gave up “a precious spot at one of America’s top universities”, said Sky News, which amounts to a “rite of passage for the country’s leading tech entrepreneurs”.

His first venture was a smartphone app called Loopt, founded in 2005, which let people share their real-time location with others. He raised £30 million with the aid of start-up accelerator Y Combinator. This is an “aggressively geeky” three-month boot camp, run twice a year, in how to become a “‘unicorn’ – Valleyspeak for a billion-dollar company”, according to The New Yorker. Altman became a partner of Y Combinator in 2011, then its president in 2014. He then turned his attention to his next start-up, OpenAI, the following year, and stepped back from Y Combinator in 2019.

Why did Altman co-create OpenAI?

Altman created OpenAI with Musk in 2015 as a “hedged bet on the end of human predominance”; it was born of “Musk’s conviction that an AI could wipe us out by accident”.

Launching a start-up back then was “akin to assembling an alt-rock band in 1996 or protesting the Vietnam War in 1971 – an act of youthful rebellion gone conformist”, said Friend in The New Yorker. “Like everyone in Silicon Valley, Altman professes to want to save the world; unlike almost everyone there, he has a plan to do it,” Friend added.

Under his leadership, OpenAI is no longer a non-profit, and has an estimated value of $29 billion, according to Sky News, thanks to the “remarkable success of its generative AI tools” including ChatGPT and DALL-E.

What next for Altman and OpenAI?

“For all the wonder” generative AI is providing, it’s matched by concerns including “spreading disinformation or making jobs redundant”. Governments are also “scrambling” to effectively regulate a technology that “seems destined to change the world forever”. These are also among Altman’s “worst fears”. For this reason, he “appears keen to be a willing participant” in the responsible use of AI and how regulation should be shaped.

The Silicon Valley CEO, however, sees releasing the technology as “a great public service”, said The Atlantic. He also added that “jobs are definitely going to go away, full stop”. This is something he “doesn’t seem to be too stressed about”, said The Byte, and says a “world with AI will be better – though it sounds like he isn’t quite sure what that world will look like”.

Altman is preparing for what comes next through other ventures including Tools for Humanity, which recently launched a new cryptocurrency project, Worldcoin. The aim, according to Wired, is to create a global ID system that will “help reliably differentiate between humans and AI, in preparation for when intelligence is no longer a reliable indicator of personhood”.

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Keumars Afifi-Sabet is a freelance writer at The Week Digital, and is the features editor on ITPro, another Future Publishing brand. As features editor, he commissions and publishes in-depth articles around a variety of areas including AI, cloud computing and cybersecurity. As a writer, he specialises in technology and current affairs. In addition to The Week Digital, he contributes to Computeractive and TechRadar, among other publications.