Like a fictional movie, the tech world has been watching the turbulent movements inside OpenAI, the company that runs the revolutionary ChatGPT chatbot, for days.
And the person in the eye of the storm is one of the brightest stars of the burgeoning artificial intelligence industry: Sam Altman.
The OpenAI co-founder was fired last Friday, November 17, in a decision described as surprising, sudden and dramatic.
The Silicon Valley firm explained that his dismissal was due to a situation of loss of trust, as it determined that Altman “was not consistently truthful in his communications” with management, “which hindered his ability to carry out his responsibilities”.
After a chaotic weekend within this technology organization – with threats of mass resignations by its staff – Microsoft (OpenAI’s largest investor) announced on Monday that it had hired Altman to lead “a new advanced research team”.
But just 48 hours after that announcement, OpenAI reported that it had agreed with Altman to return as CEO. The deal, they said, would also see the appointment of new members of the board that fired him.
But who is this 38-year-old American programmer, a key player in the development of artificial intelligence, whose latest moves have the tech world so dismayed? Here we tell you.
Samuel H. Altman grew up in Missouri, USA.
He learned to program and disassemble one of Apple’s first computers, the Macintosh, when he was 8 years old, according to an interview with The New Yorker.
Altman said in the same interview that having a computer helped him with his sexuality, thanks to the conversations and groups he was able to participate in during his adolescence.
At 16, he told his parents he was gay and then came out openly at the school he attended.
He entered Stanford University in California to study computer science, but did not finish his degree.
A similar case to Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, who dropped out of Harvard before becoming two of the most influential CEOs in history.
Together with some friends, Altman decided to devote himself entirely to developing his first idea, Loopt, an application for sharing location with others.
We are talking about the year 2005, long before WhatsApp existed and almost at the same time as the appearance of Facebook.
Loopt had no major significance, but it did serve as a springboard to launch Altman’s career as an entrepreneur and opened the doors to the world of large technology investments.
One of the companies that supported Loopt in its early days was Y Combinator (YC), one of the most prestigious and successful startup accelerators that invested in innovations such as Airbnb and DropBox.
Altman sold his first project for more than US$40 million, which allowed him to expand his areas of interest and invest in several of the ideas under the YC umbrella, which he went on to chair between 2014 and 2019.
It was during this period that, together with Elon Musk, he created OpenAI, a company that allowed him to immerse himself in a world that generated fascination and fear in equal measure: that of artificial intelligence.
“Either we enslave artificial intelligence or it will enslave us.”
OpenAI is a research company whose mission is, as it says on its website, to make sure that “artificial intelligence benefits all of humanity” and does not kill it.
An idea partly driven by Altman’s expressed fear of artificial intelligence becoming a lethal weapon against humans.
In the extensive piece Tad Friend wrote for The New Yorker in 2016, Altman talks about the need for a merger as the best-case scenario for the future.
“Either we enslave artificial intelligence or it will enslave us,” he said.
An idea shared by Musk, who while he disassociated himself from OpenAI in 2018 over what he called conflicts of interest with his main company Tesla, continues to invest in it and fund other projects along the same lines of gaining control of artificial intelligence.
One of them is NeuraLink to try to connect our brains to computers.
The now owner of Twitter believes that only in this way will humans be able to keep up with artificial intelligence and not be displaced by it when these systems feed back into each other.
Strategy and self-criticism
That vision of the doomsday future that prompted Musk and Altman to get involved in artificial intelligence has also shaped OpenAI’s strategy with respect to ChatGPT and DALL-E, another OpenAI-developed artificial intelligence tool that works with images.
“One of the things we really believe in is that the most responsible way to introduce these systems into society is gradually,” Altman said earlier this year in a conversation with StrictlyVC, a company that showcases what’s happening in Silicon Valley and the tech world.
“That way we can get people, institutions and regulators to get familiar with it, think about the implications, feel the technology and get a sense of what it can and can’t do, rather than unleashing a super-powerful system all at once,” he added.
According to the Dot CSV YouTube channel, which specializes in reporting and explaining artificial intelligence, the strategy Altman is talking about marks a departure from what has been the trend set by big tech over the past 20 years.
“There’s the trend of companies leading artificial intelligence progress acting on the Silicon Valley motto of move fast and break things,” commented this channel analyzing Altman’s words.
“That philosophy of being agile and putting out products without thinking about their implications.”
They also emphasized that “in Sam’s case it’s not about moving fast but about putting out products that are still imperfect so that little by little society adapts to them.”
In a way, that is what is happening with ChatGPT and DALL-E, which have received criticism from many quarters, including academia and creativity.
“ChatGPT is incredibly limited,” Altman acknowledged in a thread he posted on Twitter last December.
“But good enough at some things to create a false impression of greatness. It’s a mistake to rely on him for anything important at this point.”
Altman has also addressed the questions Chat is receiving about biases or prejudices in its responses.
“We know ChatGPT has shortcomings in terms of bias, and we are working to improve it,” he acknowledged on his X (Twitter) account.
“We are working to improve the default settings and make them more neutral, and also to allow users to make our systems behave according to their individual preferences within broad limits.”
“This is harder than it sounds and will take us some time to achieve,” he justified at the end of his thread.
Today, Sam Altman is not just a successful executive in the tech world.
The programmer is a reference for many world leaders when it comes to talking about artificial intelligence.
Just a few weeks ago, in fact, he attended an AI summit along with world and tech industry leaders, engaging in discussions about the risks and benefits posed by this powerful technology he is pioneering.
During his career Altman has been able to attract capital from strong investors to fund projects that he approved during his time at Y Combinator and in which he has subsequently invested.
Little is known about his exact net worth, but recently there have been several announcements projecting his growth into the select group of billionaires.
OpenAI, which was born as a non-profit project, became a hybrid company with limited benefits.
In October, the company was valued at US$80 billion.
Many analysts agree that Sam Altman will now return to OpenAI with more power.
Emmett Shear, who had been named interim CEO of the company in Altman’s absence, said he was “deeply pleased” at his return after a “very intense 72 hours of work.”
For his part, Microsoft chief Satya Nadella said the company was “encouraged by the changes to the OpenAI board.”
“We believe this is an essential first step on the road to more stable, well-informed and effective governance.”
Many employees have also been enthusiastic about the news: “We are back and will be better than ever,” wrote one on his Linkedin account.
However, there are others who suggest that the recent Sam Altman episode has been detrimental to OpenAI.
“OpenAI may not be the same company it was until Friday night. That has implications not only for potential investors, but also for recruiting,” Nick Patience of S&P Global Market Intelligence told the GLM.
All in all, what is clear is that the challenge for Sam Altman is now enormous.
And it remains to be seen whether he will be able to continue to lead such a large and powerful vessel as artificial intelligence.