Meet Sam Altman, the man behind OpenAI’s revolutionary ChatGPT

When ChatGPT launched in November, it immediately changed the global business and political landscape. The service became one of the fastest-growing apps in history, garnering 100 million users in two months. 

Faced with a visible, tangible artificial intelligence bundled as a usable product, companies began looking for ways to trim their staff by incorporating AI. Investors’ over-excitement around so-called generative AI fueled an enormous surge in the tech sector throughout 2023. The creative industries, meanwhile, have been upended, with Hollywood writers and actors on strike over AI concerns, among other factors

DON’T MISS: The Company Behind ChatGPT Is Now Facing a Massive Lawsuit

The Big Tech sector, meanwhile, has been racing feverishly to build and deploy competitive products, even as some artists, writers, healthcare professionals, and students have turned to ChatGPT and its peers to enhance their productivity. 

At the same time, the surge in AI hype, spearheaded by ChatGPT, has led to a national conversation about regulation as experts debate the cost-benefit ratio presented by the technology and politicians try to better understand the tech before they move to regulate it.  

Altman has been a prominent voice in the calls for regulation of his growing industry. He appeared before a Senate oversight committee in May, where he noted that “if this technology goes wrong, it can go quite wrong.” 

DON’T MISS: AI Companies Beg For Regulation

Regardless, Altman and his colleagues at OpenAI are intent on achieving a superintelligent AI. 

Altman’s life and career have followed an interesting path. Positioned now as one of the most significant players in the tech and AI sector, he got his start as an app developer, and then a venture capitalist. He has brushed shoulders with the likes of Elon Musk and has graced Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list. 

Now, he runs one of the most impactful tech companies in the world.

Growing up

Altman was born in 1985 in Chicago with an affinity for computers and coding. Per the New Yorker, he had learned to program and disassemble computers by the ripe age of eight. The future tech titan came out as gay when he was 16, and said that his Mac — and the AOL chatrooms that it led him to — were “transformative.” 

“Growing up gay in the Midwest in the two-thousands was not the most awesome thing,” he told The New Yorker. “And finding AOL chat rooms was transformative. Secrets are bad when you’re eleven or twelve.”

Altman attended — and reportedly had a huge impact — on the St. Louis-based John Burroughs School, a collegiate prep school. He came out to the entire school following an effort by a Christian group to boycott an assembly about sexuality. 

“What Sam did changed the school,” his college counselor, Madelyn Gray, told The New Yorker. “It felt like someone had opened up a great big box full of all kinds of kids and let them out into the world.”

Altman went on to study computer science at Stanford, according to the New Yorker, but like many tech entrepreneurs, he dropped out before earning his degree. The reason, of course, was to build out a startup with a couple of his classmates. 

More Sam Altman News: ChatGPT creator Sam Altman explains how to build a valuable startup

Altman’s first company: Loopt

Loopt was a bit of a failed social networking app, though it did serve to catapult Altman’s career. The app — which launched in 2005 — was intended to operate as a service for smartphone users to selectively share their location with others, according to the Wall Street Journal. It raised around $30 million in venture capital but couldn’t gain traction. 

The founders (which include Nick Sivo, one of Altman’s Stanford-era classmates) wound up selling Loopt to Green Dot Corporation for $43.4 million in 2012. 

A 30 under 30 venture capitalist

Just two years after shutting down Loopt, Altman sidestepped from running tech companies to heading a venture capitalist firm focused on funding those same startups. Paul Graham, the legendary computer programmer and entrepreneur who cofounded Y Combinator in 2005 — and incidentally funded Loopt — hand-picked Altman as his successor in 2014, according to Forbes

The move landed Altman on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list as he worked to expand the number of tech startups Y Combinator funded. While running Y Combinator, the firm funded companies including Airbnb (which is now worth $86.7 billion) and Dropbox (which is worth $9.6 billion). 

In 2019, Altman stepped down as the president of Y Combinator in order to focus more of his time on the soon-to-be monumental OpenAI. 

More Sam Altman News: Why Sam Altman’s own AI tech is making him nervous

The company behind ChatGPT: OpenAI

OpenAI got its start as a nonprofit research center in 2015, according to the New York Times. It was the result of a partnership between some of the tech sector’s biggest names, prominently including Elon Musk, in addition to Peter Thiel, Reid Hoffman, and, of course, Sam Altman. 

“We discussed what is the best thing we can do to ensure the future is good?” Musk said at the time. “We could sit on the sidelines or we can encourage regulatory oversight, or we could participate with the right structure with people who care deeply about developing AI in a way that is safe and is beneficial to humanity.”

DON’T MISS: Elon Musk launches OpenAI competitor xAI

But several components of those early days of OpenAI did not last. 

Musk reportedly attempted to take direct control of the company in a bid that was denied by the other founders, including Altman. Citing a conflict of interest between his work at OpenAI and Tesla, Musk resigned in 2018 after only investing $100 million of the $1 billion he had pledged. 

A year later, OpenAI transitioned into a hybridized for-profit, nonprofit mix “which we are calling a ‘capped-profit’ company.” The company is still led in part by its nonprofit board, but the core of the company has become for-profit, something OpenAI said was imperative, considering the enormous cost necessary to create AI. 

OpenAI has since become entangled with Microsoft, which has invested more than $10 billion into the company, now led by Altman. 

More OpenAI News: The Company Behind ChatGPT Is Now Facing a Massive Lawsuit

Sam Altman, AGI, and regulation 

OpenAI’s goal is to create artificial general intelligence (AGI), an AI that is generally as intelligent (or more intelligent) than humans. Its drive to create this superintelligent system has set off a national debate among experts, industry leaders, politicians, investors, and citizens about the tech, its cost-benefit ratio, and, importantly, how to regulate it.

In May, Altman testified before a Senate oversight committee, saying: “We think that regulatory intervention by governments will be critical to mitigate the risks of increasingly powerful models.” 

He has been a prominent voice in ringing the alarm bells about the potential power of the very same tech he is so adamantly developing. 

“The risks could be extraordinary,” he said of AGI. “A misaligned superintelligent AGI could cause grievous harm to the world.”

DON’T MISS: Protesters Say OpenAI CEO Is Dangerously Misled When It Comes to AGI

Many researchers have explained just how far away current models are from something even resembling AGI, suggesting that Altman’s hype of AGI is nothing more than a marketing scheme. But many still have expressed deep concern about the potentially existential impact a superintelligent system might have

“Maybe he’s selling a grift, I sure as hell hope he is,” Gideon Futerman, a student who protested one of Altman’s London-based talks on AI, said. “And if he’s right and he’s building systems which are generally intelligent, the dangers are far, far bigger. And there’s a very legitimate question as to why they don’t stop.” 

Sam Altman wants to scan your eyeballs with Worldcoin

Altman, ever the passionate businessman, launched another company that combines his work in AI with cryptocurrency in July 2023. Called Worldcoin, the company’s goal is to eventually be a platform to provide a universal basic income to people in a future where most jobs are fully automated. A component of this is the verification of peoples’ humanity in a world that is already overrun with AI algorithms, models, and bots. 

The company achieves this verification by scanning its users’ eyeballs and assigning a numeric code to that unique iris scan. But, similar to ChatGPT and OpenAI, Worldcoin has faced severe criticism for reportedly engaging in deceptive and exploitative marketing, a rebuke that comes in addition to deep-seated concern over the company’s potential privacy violations in the biometric data it collects. 

Get investment guidance from trusted portfolio managers without the management fees. Sign up for Action Alerts PLUS now.

Related Posts