Sam Altman was virtually unknown to the average consumer a year ago. Then OpenAI seemingly came out of nowhere, and its CEO suddenly became a powerful figure in the public’s consciousness.
And if the public is surprised by Altman’s meteoric rise to power, it turns out he is too.
Altman has long been something of a wonderkid, catching the attention of the likes of Elon Musk and Bill Gates relatively early in his career.
But the boy genius has now grown up, and the 38-year-old is being called in front of senate hearings to answer questions about what his company’s technology mean for the future of humanity.
To have such influence is startling to even Altman. In an interview with New York Magazine, Altman shared his apparent shock at the position he is now in.
“I mean, I am a midwestern Jew from an awkward childhood at best, to say it very politely,” Altman told the magazine. “And I’m running one of a handful…top few dozen of the most important technology projects. I can’t imagine that this would have happened to me.”
In fairness to Altman, few people grow up predicting they will see the level of impact their invention—like ChatGPT—will have on the global landscape.
Open letters and noise
The launch of the large language model (LLM) prompted nearly 34,000 technology experts—including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Tesla’s Elon Musk—to sign an open letter calling for a pause to the development of giant artificial intelligence experiments.
As noise around ChatGPT continued to get louder, Geoffrey Hinton, the so-called Godfather of AI, told the MIT Technology Review he feared LLMs will soon be able to outsmart humans.
But the cataclysm of warnings also came with the rapid increase in rivals: as ChatGPT gathered steam—it recorded 1.43 billion visits in August—Google announced the launch of their own bot, Bard, while Amazon and Meta also rushed to focus efforts on the emerging technology.
Still, despite setting the ball rolling, Altman is the one asking for guardrails to be placed on his industry. In a senate hearing he told told committee members he feared the sector could cause harm to the world, saying regulation is necessary.
He reiterated this message to New York Magazine, saying: “I have so much sympathy for the fact that something like OpenAI is supposed to be a government project.”
Summer of scurvy
Unlike his tech titan peers—Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, for example—Altman is a relatively new figure on the world stage.
However, his New York Magazine profiles paints the familiar picture of the highly-driven tech CEO that Silicon Valley is so famous for.
In his recent work with ChatGPT, Altman has been upping his profile with a ‘world tour‘, visiting countries including Japan, Australia, South Korea, India, Singapore and more in the space of a fortnight.
Yet it appears Altman has always been highly driven, even putting his health on the line in order to deliver success.
In 2004 the Missouri-born entrepreneur—who is one of four siblings—landed a place on the Summer Founders Program launched by the Y Combinator, a business Altman ultimately went on to run.
During the few months he spent in Cambridge, Mass., Altman revealed he worked so hard he ended up getting scurvy, a disease caused by a serious vitamin C deficiency.
It’s a habit Altman has never shied away from admitting. Where Gates said he competed with colleagues to sleep as little as possible and Musk sleeps in his office, Altman said he believes “extreme people get extreme results.”
In a 2019 blog post he added: “You can get to about the 90th percentile in your field by working either smart or hard, which is still a great accomplishment.
“But getting to the 99th percentile requires both—you will be competing with other very talented people who will have great ideas and be willing to work a lot.”