Sam Altman, head of artificial intelligence, who keeps an eye on the risks

When OpenAI CEO Sam Altman appeared to testify on Capitol Hill for the first time this week, he hardly expected an easy ride. The explosive success of ChatGPT, his company’s AI-powered chatbot, has set off a frenzied arms race in the tech industry — even though Altman himself is among those who have warned that AI, if left unchecked, could have worrisome consequences for humanity.

His appearance before a Senate subcommittee resulted in what one former committee staffer called “Altman mania.” Lawmakers and the media seemed to hang on his every word as he called for artificial intelligence regulation, admitting with disarming understatement: “If this technology goes wrong, it can go very wrong.”

The performance is “night and day compared to other CEOs,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal told reporters, recalling contrasts at congressional grillings by other tech leaders, including meta-member Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Altman’s Capitol Hill debut gave many a first look at the next up-and-coming tech mogul. ChatGPT turned OpenAI from a goofy research lab into the hottest tech property, and in the process seriously rubbed AI Google.

Altman, 38, is a Silicon Valley product who in many ways resembles a less maniacal version of Elon Musk. Like the Tesla and SpaceX entrepreneur, he has an eye for the big stakes and a penchant for the grand visionary statement. Where Musk has rocket ships, Altman has fusion energy (he’s sunk $375 million of his own money into nuclear fusion startup Helion.) Last week, the FT reported that Altman is closing in on a $100 million funding round for his plan. use iris scanning technology to create a global secure cryptocurrency called Worldcoin.

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Brad Lightcap, who has worked with him for seven years and is the chief operating officer of OpenAI, describes him as a polymath who glides easily between topics such as artificial intelligence, nuclear fusion and quantum computing. Altman’s “superpower,” Lightcap adds, is his ability to “frame a mission around a technology that’s going to be very important in the next two, three, five decades.”

Eight years ago, Altman was at a dinner with Musk and other tech luminaries that sparked his plan to create an artificial intelligence company dedicated to the safe use of technology’s advances. As he told the New Yorker, a few years earlier, while hiking with friends, it dawned on him that “hardware that could replicate my brain” was on the horizon.

“Only a few people have invested in these technologies,” says Alexandr Wang of Scale AI, a company that was first backed by Y Combinator, the famous tech incubator run by Altman. “He’s willing to take big bets, that’s one of the things that makes him a great investor. He is willing to bet on the long term.”

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At Stanford University, Altman’s first startup, Loopt, a location-based social media service, didn’t get off the ground. But that was enough to put him on the fast track of Silicon Valley. AY Combinator founder Paul Graham plucked himself from relative obscurity at the age of 28 to lead the tech incubator, whose successes include Airbnb and payments company Stripe. It gave Altman room for the hottest new investment fads and a taste for placing bets on ideas that are still off the drawing board.

At OpenAI, where he’s been CEO since 2019, Altman now works on the tech world’s toughest balancing act. Having established a close partnership with Microsoft, it is racing to capitalize on the global sensation that ChatGPT has created. But he also warned that the technology could end in disaster without better management. “It’s a very difficult situation for you to be in,” says Wang.

“He’s not a typical ‘tech bro’ who’s just excited about technology, fascinated by technology, but also cares deeply about the social implications,” says Sal Khan, founder of online education service Khan Academy, who has worked with OpenAI. “It’s not a plot.”

Altman also struggled with finding the best way to balance AI’s huge money-making potential with OpenAI’s original mission of making the technology benefit all of humanity. According to Michael Moritz, a partner at Sequoia Capital, which invested in OpenAI, Altman rejected his proposal to set up the company as a commercial venture from the beginning, preferring to make it a nonprofit. Later, however, in order to bring in a $1 billion investment from Microsoft, Altman reworked it into a new hybrid form, limiting the returns to outside investors from a new commercial arm while channeling extra profits into a non-profit fund.

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Altman himself told US lawmakers this week that he had not raised capital — unheard of for a startup founder — and described his indirect stake in the company through a Y Combinator investment as “immaterial.” With typical deadpan delivery, he said, “I do it because I love it.”

Its apparent willingness to hand over potentially huge fortunes could prove to be an important factor as it pursues OpenAI’s unusual dual purpose. The company’s investor return cap would have been difficult to accept “on its own, without Sam’s lack of equity,” says Moritz. Still, if the technology behind ChatGPT lives up to the big claims surrounding it, Altman is well on his way to joining tech’s biggest moguls. But it may not be very similar to earlier Mughals.

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