Who is Sam Altman?

In Silicon Valley before ChatGPT came out of nowhere in November 2022, the answer to the question wasn’t clear. He was a non-programmer, a not-so-successful entrepreneur (by his own admission), a halfway decent operator of a large incubator, and a candidate for governor of California.

An anonymous Silicon Valley VC once described him as one of the Tom Wambsgans from the US TV show “Inheritance” - obedient under his father-in-law’s wing, but seizing every opportunity to climb the ladder of power.

When ChatGPT rocked the world, some began calling him “the Oppenheimer of our time.” Altman is 38 years old, the age when Oppenheimer set out to form the Manhattan Project. He is slim and has green eyes. In an interview, Altmann also mysteriously mentioned that he and Oppenheimer share the same birthday.

In 2015, the same year OpenAI was founded, the editors of the New York Times asked Altman to feature one of his favorite books in a weekend column, and he recommended American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Some have dubbed him the next Musk, and the two were once close but have now publicly broken up; he claims not to own any shares of the OpenAI for-profit entity, and as CEO is pushing its valuation into the hundreds of billions of dollars; and he tirelessly travels among governments calling for the regulation of AI-which is pretty much the same thing as calling for governments to regulate themselves. It’s reminiscent of Oppenheimer’s public outcry about atomic safety 70 years ago.

Paul Graham, Altman’s mentor, friend, and co-founder of Y Combinator (YC), says, “Some people make enough money and then stop, but Sam doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in money. Another possibility is that he went into OpenAI perhaps because he prefers power.”

Silicon Valley was just the first stop on Altman’s path to power.

In 2005, at the age of 19, Altman dropped out of Stanford University and co-founded Loopt, a social media company with an app that tells you where your friends are. The company became one of the first startups to enter Silicon Valley’s most prestigious incubator, YC, that same year; Loopt didn’t take off, but the money Altman made from selling it allowed him to enter the venture capital world. He then started Hydrazine Capital, a small venture capital firm, and raised about $21 million, which also included money from Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel.

In 2014, YC co-founders Graham and Jessica Livingston surprisingly hired Altman as Graham’s successor to run YC, when he was just 28 years old.

As you can imagine, Graham was a great admirer of Altmann. In his “Entrepreneurship Guide for Students,” he mentioned that Altman was a maverick, and that when he first met Altman in his early twenties in 2006, “within three minutes of meeting him, I thought to myself, Ah, so much for a 19-year-old Bill Gates!”

Marc Andreessen, the famous Silicon Valley venture capitalist, said that under Altman’s leadership, “YC’s ambition level went up tenfold.” According to Graham, Altman has been trying to comprehensively change the way we live through technological advances in a number of areas, including cancer treatment, nuclear fusion, supersonic airliners, and artificial intelligence.

“I think his goal is to create the entire future.” Graham said.

media is Altman’s other big asset

Aside from being the head of YC, media is Altman’s other big asset. On the one hand, he loves to write, and like his mentor Graham (and author of the famous startup bible Hackers and Painters), his frequently updated personal blog is sought after by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, making him one of the most influential opinion leaders in the Valley.

On the other hand, Altman also likes to expand his influence by dealing with and “making friends” with journalists in the media.

Jessica Lessin, founder of the technology media The Information, recalled in a column not long ago how she dealt with him when she was a fledgling Wall Street Journal reporter in 2008. Instead of being outraged when she tried to write a negative story about the privacy risks posed by Loopt, the company Altman founded, the 22-year-old Altman offered to help and sent a very long document outlining all the risks Loopt had identified and its response.

Any entrepreneur who learns that the Wall Street Journal is going to feature his company in a story about the dangers of mobile privacy would panic and run for the hills,” commented Runcie. Altman does the opposite. He tried to control the narrative and get his name on the front page.”

In 2014, I moved from Beijing to Silicon Valley to become a tech journalist. Silicon Valley has been the birthplace of the tech revolution for the past five decades, with its arid climate and reddish-brown hills reminiscent of the Los Alamos Valley in the movie Oppenheimer.

At the time, I was preparing to lead a group of Chinese entrepreneurs on a study tour of the Silicon Valley tech industry. Many of the entrepreneurs who had signed up wanted to visit YC by name, so I turned to Lancy and asked her to help match them up. Altman said he was interested in meeting with me in a classroom at Stanford University. He was teaching an entrepreneurship class there that day.

When I arrived at the classroom, the session hadn’t ended yet, and all I could see was a skinny young man standing at the podium. He had the typical face of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur: young, pale, geeky, and speaking rapidly and passionately about how to change the world with entrepreneurship.

As the crowd dispersed after class, I approached him to introduce myself. There was something shy about him, like a regular college student. We chatted for a while in that big classroom. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, except that at the end he said, “I should visit China more often.”

A month later, I brought a group of Chinese entrepreneurs to visit YC’s headquarters, and Altman warmly greeted them in a harmonious atmosphere. While Altman was giving his welcome speech, not far away was a man his age quietly watching, his name was Zhang Yiming, who at the time developed a news app called Today’s Headlines.

Zhang Yiming specifically wrote a travel article after returning to China, mentioning that although YC does not provide venues, but it will give the startup team to find well-known entrepreneurs in the industry as a mentor to teach experience, YC’s only requirement for incubatees is to do a good job of the product, rapidly expand the user scale, as for other things as far as possible do not worry about it, which is a very worthwhile point to learn from the domestic incubation institutions.

“To summarize a sentence, this is the ‘golden age’ of Chinese technology companies, the opportunity is there, with all the students who are on the road of entrepreneurship like today’s headlines.” Zhang Yiming concluded by writing. After that he embarked on the most dramatic globalization of the Chinese Internet.

After that visit, Altman and I bonded. He had a unique quality about him - sincerity with a touch of humility. That’s almost a virtue in the frenetic Silicon Valley. Some of the people I’ve met on many occasions here, who seem to be high and mighty, eventually prove to be empty.

A few months later, Altman wrote a post on his personal blog titled China. In this article, he focused on issues that made him more of a politician. At the beginning of the article, he mentions that China’s economy has surpassed that of the United States in 2014 if you use the purchasing power parity metric.

“As a hopeful U.S. citizen, the most critical question is whether it is possible for one country to remain as strong as another with four times fewer people. The U.S. has never been the most populous country in the world, but it has always been the largest economy, and how has the U.S. done that? One important way is by maintaining our excellence in innovation and developing new technologies. Over the last century, a large number of major technological advances (far more than our share of the world’s population) have come from the United States.”

What will be the next major technological advance? Altman provided the answer shortly thereafter.

like a savvy politician between money and power

In the fall of 2016, Silicon Valley held a private screening of Westworld, a sci-fi TV series about artificial intelligence consciousness. The director, Jonathan Nolan, is the brother of Christopher Nolan. The event was convened by Altman, then 31 years old. The event was held at the mansion of Yuri Milner, a Russian-born Jewish venture capitalist and friend of Altman’s, on Los Altos Hill.

Guests invited to the event received an invitation that read, “Sam Altman and Yuri Milner invite you to a pre-release screening of the premiere episode of Westworld, a new HBO series exploring the future of artificial consciousness and artificial intelligence.”

The guests at the screening are some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names, with Google co-founder Sergey Brin being one of them. More young founders emerged from YC.

A Silicon Valley opinion leader and social centerpiece, Altman began publicly discussing the potential threat of AI to the future of humanity early on, abandoning the notion that human intelligence was unique back around 2012, before Google’s AlphaGo was even born. It was during a hike with a friend that he suddenly realized that “hardware that could replicate the human brain” was on the horizon.

Altman soon found his soulmate in Musk, who was convinced that the day would come when AI would be stronger than humans. Musk and Altmann discussed at length the goal of “AI alignment”. The goal is to align AI systems with human goals and values.

Altman once defended AI technology by quoting Oppenheimer: “Technology happens because it’s possible.” He and Musk plan to accomplish this goal by setting up a lab.

At a small dinner in Palo Alto, Altman and Musk decided to start a nonprofit AI research lab, which they named “OpenAI.” The name was Musk’s idea, and the lab’s goal was that it would work to counter Google’s growing dominance in the field and “make sure that AI doesn’t hurt humans.”

A number of Silicon Valley leaders were soon on board, including Peter Thiel, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, and Stripe’s former chief technology officer Greg Brockman.

There’s a nearly 15-year age gap between the two. For a long time, Musk played the role of Altman’s mentor to some extent.

Altman once asked Musk for advice on how to deal with the crazy ideas in his head. “How do you make a decision when everyone tells you it’s a crazy idea? Or, where do you get the inner strength to make such a decision?” Altman asked.

Musk replied, “It’s not that I don’t have fear, I feel it very strongly. But sometimes, when something is important enough and you believe in it enough, you let go of the fear and do it.”

The breakdown in the relationship between the two occurred in 2018, when Musk reportedly left OpenAI after his offer to take the helm was rejected. He also dropped his commitment to continue funding OpenAI, which left Altman in a difficult position.

Reid Hoffman also confirmed, “Basically, he [Musk] was saying, ‘You’re all a bunch of idiots,’ and left.”

Altman later said, “It was a very difficult situation. I had to readjust my life and my schedule to make sure we had enough money.”

Unlike Musk’s penchant for dramatic conflict, Altman seems intent on avoiding it. In Isaacson’s account, Altman was a sensitive man, and conflict with Musk pained him. Altman later told tech reporter Kara Swisher, “He’s a jerk, and we have really different styles of doing things, and I don’t want his kind of style.”

Seeking allies and defusing conflicts is how Altman exerts his influence. in late 2018, just as the company was struggling after losing its main source of funding, Altman managed to convince Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella after a “chance encounter” at an annual gathering of tech leaders in Sun Valley, Idaho. After a “chance encounter,” Altman managed to convince Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Microsoft CTO Kevin Scott to agree to a partnership deal - Microsoft invested $1 billion in OpenAI, and the two sides also worked together on Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform. After that, Altman resigned from his position at YC to become CEO of OpenAI and devote himself to the startup. Here, he is not involved in technology development or AI research, but plays more of a strategic goal-setting, agenda-setting role that brings the team together.

In addition, he redesigned OpenAI’s shareholding structure, creating a for-profit entity on top of the original nonprofit structure, bringing in outside capital, and creating four stages of profit growth, with the first three stages favoring outside investors, and the last stage, when profits reach $150 billion, when OpenAI’s parent company takes back all of its equity at no cost. OpenAI is once again a nonprofit organization.

And Altman, as designer and helmsman, does not own any shares in the for-profit entity. He’s like a savvy politician between money and power, and it seems the latter appeals to him more.

When ChatGPT launched last November, OpenAI immediately became the hottest new tech startup.

Musk became even angrier, and in February 2023, he “summoned” Altman to meet him at Twitter’s headquarters and demanded that Altman bring OpenAI’s founding documents. Musk challenged him to prove how he could legally turn a donation-funded nonprofit into a for-profit organization. Altman tried to prove to Musk that it was all done legally, insisting that he was neither a shareholder nor a cash-grabber. He also offered Musk shares in the new company, but Musk declined.

The conversation broke down, and Musk began attacking OpenAI and Altman on Twitter and in multiple public appearances.

On February 17, he tweeted, “OpenAI was created as an open source nonprofit to check Google, but now it has become an open source, most profitable company effectively controlled by Microsoft.”

On March 15, he tweeted again, “I’m still baffled as to how a nonprofit to which I donated about $100 million became a $30 billion market cap for-profit. If this is legal, why don’t they let others do it?”

He later posted “I’m sure everything will be fine,” only to include the text in an emoji: “I realized that AI is the most powerful tool humanity has ever had, and it’s now in the hands of ruthless monopolies.”

Musk also announced his own AI company, x.AI, in July, saying its goal was to “understand the true nature of the universe.” But it’s clear that this is more of another manifestation of Musk’s penchant for dramatic conflict. He even revealed that the name of the new product they are developing is called “TruthGPT.”

For all that Musk has done, Altman has kept quiet and not fought back, even saying that he understands for Musk’s behavior.

In May, OpenAI worked with third-party developers to launch 70 plug-ins , Altman wrote a double entendre tweet: “The summer is coming”.

Musk tweeted back underneath, “Make sure the summer is safe.”

After AI,the political arena is becoming Altman’s next stage

After AI became a social and even political issue, the political arena is becoming Altman’s next stage.

Back in 2017, there were rumors that Altman had a desire to run for governor of California. He didn’t comment on the rumors, but expressed a desire to see someone from the tech community run for governor.

In terms of political philosophy, Altman is strongly opposed to Trump and is a supporter of universal basic income. In this economic model, people would receive a baseline income to ensure they could support themselves without full employment. The growing belief that artificial intelligence will replace more jobs has been scoffed at by politicians in Washington.

In May, as in a similar episode of the Oppenheimer movie, Altman took the witness stand at a Senate hearing. At the hearing, he said, “If something goes wrong with this technology, it could go terribly wrong.”

The hearing went quite well, and Altman succeeded in evoking the importance of AI in American politics. Compared to the saber-rattling that Facebook (now meta) CEO Mark Zuckerberg and TikTok CEO Shouzhi Zhou encountered at the hearing, the atmosphere was a harmonious one.

“He has a natural ability to persuade people.” Graham had commented.

Altman answered each of the legislator’s questions with considerable humility and sincerity, using the eloquence and communication skills he specializes in. The media noted that after the meeting Altman even ran up to the podium like a college student and asked the chairman of the hearing panel for some “humble advice.” And the senators seemed to accept his warning, believing that AI could “do significant harm to the world” and calling for some regulation to be put in place for the emerging technology.

Interestingly, some senators have adopted Altman as one of their own, with Senator John Neely Kennedy even asking Altman himself if he would be qualified to participate in the formation of a federal agency to regulate AI.

To which Altman politely declined, “I like what I’m doing.”

After the hearing, Altman kicked off his global tour, with the goal of sharing with governments and the public the advantages of AI and the importance of appropriate regulation, and proposing that an organization similar to the United Nations-affiliated Atomic Energy Agency should be formed to jointly regulate AI.

He first traveled to Europe to meet with European leaders, a long list that included the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the President of France, the Prime Minister of Spain, and the Prime Minister of Poland. During his visit to Europe, the European Union Parliament voted to advance draft legislation called the Artificial Intelligence Act (AI Act), a set of bills considered to be the first comprehensive set of AI regulations in the West. The draft includes restrictions on facial recognition and requires some AI models to disclose copyrighted material used to train the models. Similarly, at the time of Altman’s visit to Australia, the local government was in the midst of an eight-week consultation on regulating AI.

In addition to suiting up to meet with heads of government, he attended numerous public events as if he were a candidate running for office.

When he came to speak at University College London in England, people lined up from the auditorium doors to the street, stretching across a city block. People waiting to enter in the sunshine exchanged ideas about AI. Inside the auditorium, Altman was greeted like a rock star.

“I’m very excited about this technology that can restore the productivity that has been lost over the last few decades, and not just catch up.” He reiterated his basic point about the world’s two major “limiting factors,” the cost of intelligence and the cost of energy. If the costs of both are dramatically reduced, he said, it should help the poor more than the rich. “Artificial intelligence technology will lift the whole world.” He said.

In London, Altmann still says the same thing - regulation has to be just right. He expects to see a regulatory model that is “somewhere between the traditional European way and the traditional American way.” He warns that excessive regulations could hurt small companies and the open source movement.

He said, “If someone really tackles the hard stuff and builds a superintelligence – however you define it – then it’s appropriate to have some global rules… …I would hope that we would take this at least as seriously as we take nuclear material, because large-scale systems could give rise to superintelligence.”

There was another attitude outside the auditorium. Six young protesters held signs calling on OpenAI to stop developing general artificial intelligence (AGI) that reaches the same level of intelligence as the human brain. One protester with a megaphone accused Altman of having a “messiah complex”-risking the destruction of humanity in pursuit of self-worth.

After the speaking event in Melbourne, Altman, dressed in a gray Henley shirt, dark pants and a pair of rainbow sneakers, was surrounded by young people asking for photos and autographs. Meanwhile, there were protesters in the hall holding up signs, one of which read, “Artificial Intelligence is likely to lead to the end of the world.”

Melbourne was the final stop for Altmann, who has visited an astonishing 22 countries in the past few weeks, but showed little fatigue.

Altman’s global:not scheduled for Beijing, Shanghai or Shenzhen

Many noticed that Altman’s global tour was not scheduled for Beijing, Shanghai or Shenzhen.

Altman is well aware of the importance of China. In the year of OpenAI’s founding, he presciently wrote in his blog, “…… What we need to do is to find a way to coexist with China. If nothing else, China and the United States will be the world’s superpowers for some time. The world is so interconnected now that completely separate governments playing by different rules won’t work. Maybe we can find a way to work on the things we’re really good at, but also have at least partial cooperation between governments, rather than going down the path of history that has been repeated countless times - i.e., increasing hostility between the two sides until conflict erupts.”

China has a large number of AI entrepreneurs and developers, as well as a well-developed infrastructure and a huge user base. Upon realizing that Singapore was one of the stops on Altman’s globe-trotting tour, I texted him and asked him if he would like to meet AI entrepreneurs from China in Singapore as he did last time. Altman quickly replied, saying he was “very interested” and emailed his assistant to schedule a time. But his assistant was in a difficult position because Altman would only be in Singapore for half a day, with only one university talk on his itinerary.

A few weeks later, Altman, who was already back in Silicon Valley, participated in Beijing Zhiyuan’s AI conference by remote video and gave a speech calling for collaboration on how to manage the use of AI.

“China has some of the best AI talent in the world,” he said, but he also emphasized that “with the emergence of increasingly powerful AI systems, the importance of global collaboration has never been higher.”

In July, OpenAI announced that it was joining Google and Microsoft to form the Frontier Model Forum, an industry body looking to ensure the safe and responsible development of cutting-edge AI models. Altman revealed to me that he’s considering inviting some Chinese companies to join the organization.

“We’re discussing this with Tencent and Byte, and other [Chinese] companies are possibilities.”

We last spoke a few days ago, when he had just finished attending an AI conference in Taipei, organized by Foxconn’s Kuo. At the airport he texted me to let me know he was about to fly to the Middle East - his “political tour” wasn’t over yet. He mentions that he’s interested in inviting some Chinese developers to OpenAI Developer Day in November, “Please let me know if you have any Chinese companies to recommend.”

Last week, Altman appeared on the podcast The Joe Rogan Experience, a program known for celebrities spilling their guts on it.

When asked by the host about the risks of geopolitics in the age of AI, Altman said, “If [AI] ends up being a geopolitical competition, I don’t think there will be a winner. I’m optimistic about humanity working together …… Even if there are disagreements, at least we should have a globally unified set of security standards and organizations to make sure everyone follows the same rules. That’s what we did with nuclear weapons, and I believe the same can be done (with AI).”

Musk kept complaining that OpenAI was deviating from his vision

Not long ago, when Musk kept complaining that OpenAI was deviating from his vision, someone on (formerly Twitter) started a poll - when AGI (General Artificial Intelligence) comes along in the future that could decide the fate of humanity, would you like its creator to be Musk or Altman ?

I’m not a technologist and it’s hard for me to judge the technological route, but as a member of the human race, I’m going with Altman.

I’ve interviewed Musk and talked to Altman, and I’m willing to share one detail - neither Musk nor Altman like to stare their interlocutors in the eye. But I can sense quite clearly that the two are different.

Musk’s childhood experiences and his plans for the future make him defy all human rules; physics and first principles are what he judges everything by. You can’t feel the ups and downs of emotions when you talk to Musk, it’s as if you’re dealing with a robot, and there doesn’t seem to be a big difference between the way he looks at you and the way he looks at a mug.

Altman, on the other hand, is a sensitive man who looks socially terrified but has insight into human nature. He respects order, takes care of his interlocutor’s feelings, has empathy, and when a topic makes his interlocutor feel uncomfortable, Altmann will quickly notice and subconsciously avert his gaze, so as not to embarrass his interlocutor.

It’s conceivable that Musk will probably be just as determined on the road to AGI as he was at Tesla and SpaceX, convinced that only he can truly usher in the age of AI safely and at any cost - as he has demonstrated over the past few years in his aggressive push to advance his self-driving program in spite of opposition. Autonomous driving is precisely one of the most important areas of AI.

Altmann may value more than anything else his ability to make a place in human history, much like his idol Oppenheimer, to be forever remembered as a trailblazer of the age and an embodiment of justice. As a member of the human race that has enjoyed 3/4 of a century of general peace under the deterrent of nuclear weapons, Altmann seems to me a better choice.

As I write this, I am reminded of what the author of the acclaimed biography “Paths to Power” said about Lyndon Johnson, the most controversial president in American history - “He never made an enemy, and he was far-sighted.”

Like Johnson, Altman was the one who walked the path to power, an ordinary teenager out of the American Midwest with a clear goal to win and a fear of losing. Anything to serve his ambitions; anything to survive. Loyal to his friends, forgiving his enemies. No arrogance, only ideals.

Johnson, who never made any enemies in the political arena, nevertheless let the United States sink deeper into the quagmire of the Vietnam War during his presidency, accelerating the anti-war and individualistic hippie mentality in the country, and left the scene in a blaze of protest. Shortly afterward, a teenager named Steve Jobs plucked an apple from the hippie paradise and subsequently started the technological revolution of the personal computer.

It remains to be seen where the young politician Altmann’s path to power will lead.