It was in an interview with the MIT Technology Review that he commented, in December 2022, on the power of his new toys. “GPT-3 was the first experience where you really felt the intelligence of the system. He could do what a human can do. I think it caused people who didn’t believe in general artificial intelligence at all to take it seriously. Something was happening that none of us predicted”, explained Sam Altman.

With ChatGPT, the entrepreneur has achieved what no one could have predicted six months ago: surprisingly giving the general public access to one of the technologies that will revolutionize all the others. Nobody could have predicted that all of a sudden, everyone would start using ChatGPT, find it crazy and then integrate it quite naturally into their new daily life. Yet that is what is happening.

With simple, easy-to-access, free and trendy technology, the debate over the morality of artificial intelligence disappeared in a snap, as did doubts about the companies responsible for these tools. If everyone has become a user of ChatGPT, we are however all disinterested in knowing who was really its founder and its parent company.

Sam Altman, who is 37 years old and who was born in Chicago in the United States, has achieved the unthinkable. Until overshadowing Elon Musk and his recent shenanigans with Twitter which have annoyed more than one. Its history and way of thinking, although still very vague, are important elements to know in order to immerse yourself in the new economic and technological landscape of the coming years. Let’s take a quick look at him and some key points of his career and methods.

© Y Combinator

He worked with Elon Musk

This presentation by Sam Altman will not be done in a chronological sequence. So before we introduce him, let’s talk about his relationship with Elon Musk. Inevitably, for any American entrepreneur in the hands of a company capable of revolutionizing an entire economy, it is with the CEO of Tesla, SpaceX and Twitter that many will compare him. In fact, Sam Altman knows Elon Musk and even worked with him.

If the two have got into the habit, since the release of ChatGPT at the end of November, of writing to each other on Twitter, it is because they launched OpenAI together, in 2015. With Peter Thiel, Reid Hoffman, and Jessica Livingston, they injected $1 billion at its launch, to create “digital intelligence in the way most likely to benefit humanity”. For this, they originally declared that they wanted to make all the results, codes and patents available to everyone, free of rights.

At this time, in an interview with Vanity Fair, Sam Altman said he had met Elon Musk a long time ago, during a visit from SpaceX. Together, they had never stopped talking about artificial intelligence. He said: “Right now it’s just Elon and I at the helm (of OpenAI). Assuming it works, we realize that the two of us aren’t a perfect sample of what everyone in the world thinks is important. We therefore plan to expand this group”.

He made the web, in the shadows

Before becoming known for OpenAI, Sam Altman took the helm of the world’s largest accelerator for startups, Y Combinator. From 2011 to 2019, he went from partner to president, from the accelerator to the whole group. In October 2015, he also signed the addition of two new units at YC Group, namely the YC Continuity investment fund and the YC Research Lab, with an envelope intended for non-profit projects. A first step in its long-term vision, where risk capital must be able to be invested in projects requiring a lot of time before hoping to be profitable.

Under his status as president of the accelerator, he also celebrated the success of young startups, which have become an integral part of the web today. We list Airbnb, Dropbox or even Stripe. With their success in 2014, Y Combinator passed the bar of 65 billion dollars of valuation of its envelope. On a personal note, Sam Altman has also invested in Pinterest, Reddit (of which he will be the boss for… 8 days), but also Instacart, and more than 13 other startups.

How to invest in the future

With YC Research Lab, intended to invest in disruptive projects, without looking for short-term profiles, Sam Altman began to see far ahead. He put in $10 million from his relative. First, it was with the future of the computer, education and urban planning. In 2015, with OpenAI, he quickly understood that he would have to focus on artificial intelligence to invest in the future he imagines. According to him, an ethical AI. Its priorities are as follows: to guarantee access to all of these technologies, and to ensure that they are not a problematic intelligence for society.

“There will be scary times as we move closer to a general artificial intelligence, as well as major disruptions, but the potential benefits are such that they are well worth facing the challenges that will get us there. ”, wrote Sam Altman one day on Twitter. In response to a question from Elon Musk, he also added that he agreed on “the fact of being close to a dangerously strong AI in the sense of an AI that poses for example a huge cybersecurity risk. […] I think we could get to a real AGI in the next decade, so we have to take that risk very seriously as well”he wrote.

creation openai first day

A file photo from the first day of work for OpenAI, in 2015 © Sam Altman / Twitter

His take on Silicon Valley and China

Many present Sam Altman as “a product of Silicon Valley”. It is true that by making the rain and the good weather of the innovation of the American startups, largely present in California, and by launching OpenAI in San Francisco, nothing deviates from it. As commented a site journalist the Tribune, his optimism and “belief that technology will save humanity” remind other Bay Area leaders. Yet he has long been critical of the geographic area and its entrepreneurial culture.

Still according to site research the Tribune, Sam Altman reported from a trip to China in 2017 to have understood how freedom of expression in California was far from what we thought. From his feeling, he was fine”more comfortable debating controversial ideas in Beijing than in San Francisco”, he wrote in a blog post. A lack of open-mindedness in Silicon Valley according to him which would dangerously slow down innovation.

OpenAI was an association

OpenAI has always remained in San Francisco, but its status between its creation and today has evolved. Already, for its launch, the project was to be only a non-profit organization. Very quickly, it changed its status to become a “capped profit” organization. Today, we are talking about a company that would reach 29 billion dollars in value, thanks in particular to a new investment from Microsoft to the tune of 10 billion dollars. In view of the very broad field of application of the technology and its development promises, the capitalization should still increase exponentially.

From his first startup launched in 2019 and sold for 43 million dollars, to a company to the point of creating a revolution on its own and seeing its valuation exceed in no time more than 100 billion dollars, Sam Altman is not close to disappear from the radar. At Google, which had declared a red code in the face of OpenAI’s advances in artificial intelligence, a response must be launched in the coming months, under the name of DeepMind. The question, now, will be to know where to place the “O” of OpenAI in the acronym GAFAM, and Sam Altman, in the ranking of the biggest fortunes.

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