How Sam Altman Came To Be at the Heart of the Generative AI Reckoning

Long before ChatGPT, Sam Altman’s tryst with AI can be traced back to a Silicon Valley startup incubator.

Tech News
7 min read
Producer :Divya Uppal

ChatGPT, the wildly popular conversational artificial intelligence (AI) tool, will be turning one year old on 30 November 2023. Averaging 100 million weekly active users, it is one of the fastest growing apps in history.

But what of the man who is the AI chatbot's biggest champion in some ways?

The leadership crisis at OpenAI began on Friday, 17 November, when co-founder Sam Altman was abruptly sacked from his role as CEO after the company’s board of directors found that it "no longer has confidence in [Altman's] ability to continue leading OpenAI.”

More buzz followed on what exactly went down, the possibility of Altman's return to the company, and even him setting out on his own. However, on Monday, 20 November, it was confirmed that Altman will be leading a "new and advanced" AI research team at Microsoft.

However, in another head-spinning turn, Altman negotiated his comeback to OpenAI on Wednesday, 22 November.

Long before ChatGPT, Sam Altman’s tryst with AI can be traced back to a Silicon Valley startup incubator.

Sam Altman with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in February 2023.

(Photo Courtesy: X/@sama)

While we may not know what OpenAI's board meant when it said that Altman had not been "consistently candid in his communications" with them, the 38-year-old tech entrepreneur has been fairly vocal on AI, its risks, the way forward, and more.

Read about how Sam Altman came to be at the centre of the generative AI frenzy.

This article is a part of 'AI Told You So', a special series by The Quint that explores how Artificial Intelligence is changing our present and how it stands to shape our future. Click here to view the full collection of stories in the series.


Altman, the Kid With a Mac

Long before ChatGPT, Sam Altman’s tryst with AI can be traced back to a Silicon Valley startup incubator.

Sam Altman with his brothers, Jack and Max.

(Photo Courtesy: X@sama)

Sam Altman was born on 22 April 1985 in the United States' Chicago. The son of a dermatologist and real estate broker, he grew up with four other siblings in St Louis, Missouri.

"I grew up in the Midwest, sort of struggling with being gay, and I didn't have anyone I could talk to about that," Altman told Esquire in a 2014 interview.

When Altman turned eight, his birthday present was a Macintosh – his lifeline to the internet that was "a source of boundless optimism" (at least in those days).

Long before ChatGPT, Sam Altman’s tryst with AI can be traced back to a Silicon Valley startup incubator.

"Almost 22 years ago my parents got me this and it changed everything. love you mom and dad!" Altman wrote in a 2015 tweet.

(Photo Courtesy: X@sama)

"It [the MacL2] was, like, this horrifically expensive thing, that was not that good. 40 MB hard drive. And then we put it in my bedroom, and I remember about it, it was this dividing line in my life: before I had a computer and after," Altman said.

Altman's childhood idol? Steve Jobs, of course.

In 2008, a 20-year-old Altman came face-to-face with Jobs at an Apple conference. Recounting the interaction in a CNN interview, Altman said that meeting Jobs was "the only time I have ever been nervous in my business career."

Private-schooled and among the top students of his class, Altman went to Stanford University to study computer science. But two years in, he dropped out along with two of his classmates to work on a location-based app called Loopt.

However, the app reportedly fell flat on user engagement and ended up being acquired by a fintech company at a lower-than-return on investment (ROI) price.

“I learned you can’t make humans do something they don’t want to do,” Altman told The New Yorker on his first startup flopping.


Altman, the Startup Yoda

Long before ChatGPT, Sam Altman’s tryst with AI can be traced back to a Silicon Valley startup incubator.

Sam Altman became Y Combinator's president at just 31. 

(Photo Courtesy: Instagram/@YCombinator)

Sam Altman’s tryst with AI can be traced back to when he started working for (and eventually became the president of) a Silicon Valley startup incubator called Y Combinator (YC).

Founded in 2005 by Paul Graham and a few others, YC was a programme that helped tech entrepreneurs fast-track their scrappy upstarts to unicorn status (valued at more than $1billion). And was it successful?

Well, the YC community includes platforms such as:

  • Instacart

  • DoorDash

  • Docker

  • Stripe

  • Airbnb

  • Reddit

  • Coinbase

  • Twitch

The accelerator boasts of a high acceptance rate as many of the startups that attended the YC boot camp were later absorbed by Facebook, Apple, and Google.

“YC somewhat gets to direct the course of technology […] Consumers decide, ultimately, but enough people view YC as important that if we say, ‘We’re super excited about virtual reality,’ college students will start studying it,” Altman was quoted as saying by The New Yorker.
Long before ChatGPT, Sam Altman’s tryst with AI can be traced back to a Silicon Valley startup incubator.

Team YC in 2014.

(Photo Courtesy: X@sama)

At YC, Altman became the go-to for entrepreneurs struggling with strategy and fund-raising. To help Reddit weather a leadership crisis, he once stepped into the CEO shoes, but only for eight days.

Altman would reportedly work out a startup’s chance of success through a formula that was “something like Idea times Product times Execution times Team times Luck, where Luck is a random number between zero and ten thousand.”

With one eye trained on the long-term picture, Altman was always on the prowl for funding breakthrough technologies and that included AI.

"Relative to the potential impact, it doesn’t seem like enough smart people are working on this [AI],” Altman had said in a 2014 blog post.

By the time he was steering the ship in 2014, YC was reportedly using an AI bot to help sort through applications for admission into the programme.


Altman, the Doomsday Prepper

Long before ChatGPT, Sam Altman’s tryst with AI can be traced back to a Silicon Valley startup incubator.

The 'prepper' life of Sam Altman.

(Photo: X/@jaltma)

Altman's love for racing cars and flying planes may not be out of the ordinary. But his quirkiest obsession has to be preparing for various doomsday scenarios.

“After a Dutch lab modified the H5N1 bird-flu virus, five years ago, making it super contagious, the chance of a lethal synthetic virus being released in the next twenty years became, well, non-zero. The other most popular scenarios would be AI that attacks us and nations fighting with nukes over scarce resources,” Altman had told The New Yorker.

And where will Altman be if the apocalypse comes? “I have guns, gold, potassium iodide, antibiotics, batteries, water, gas masks from the Israeli Defense Force, and a big patch of land in Big Sur I can fly to,” he had said.

Perhaps this anticipation of the world coming to an end fuelled something deeper in Altman. Because in 2015, he joined hands with Elon Musk and a few other partners to form OpenAI.

When it was first set up, OpenAI was a non-profit academic grouping that vowed to make its AI research findings accessible to the public. It hoped that this would stave off the dystopia of AI wiping out humanity.

But in 2019, the company launched a capped-profit subsidiary that would make it possible to attract investments amid the rising costs of developing AI tools. By then, Tesla boss Elon Musk had exited OpenAI, citing a conflict of interest.


Altman, the ChatGPT Crusader

Long before ChatGPT, Sam Altman’s tryst with AI can be traced back to a Silicon Valley startup incubator.

Sam Altman prepares to testify before the US Senate Judiciary Committee. 

(Photo Courtesy: X/@sama)

Part of the fear that had led to the formation of OpenAI was Big Tech control of the technology, which is ironic considering that the debut of ChatGPT in 2022 set off an intense AI arms race.

ChatGPT's responses to user prompts fascinated many, and it became one of the fastest-growing apps in history. But with its popularity came serious concerns of job loss, misinformation, copyright infringement, and of course, the existential threat to humanity.

Amid the AI reckoning, Altman emerged front and centre. He spent the better part of the year globetrotting, meeting world leaders and trying to shape the conversation around AI.

To Altman's credit, he has been outspoken about the dangers of AI. For instance, he testified before the US Congress in May and didn't get defensive when policymakers grilled him about AI's influence on elections.

“It’s one of my areas of greatest concerns – the more general capability of these models to manipulate, to persuade, to provide sort of one-on-one disinformation,” said Altman.

“I think if this technology goes wrong, it can go quite wrong. And we want to be vocal about that [...] we want to work with the government to prevent that from happening,” Altman told the US Senate Judiciary Committee.

However, the tech leader has also been criticised for glossing over the legal debate on fair use and copyright infringement in the context of AI-generated content. Particularly after Altman dismissed a lawsuit against OpenAI as "pretty frivolous things" before the US Congress.

As for the future of ChatGPT, there appears to be a lot of features in the pipeline.

Before the leadership crisis, OpenAI had taken a leaf out of Apple's book and announced that a GPT Store will be launched soon. This app store will feature custom-made GPTs created by developers for specific purposes, such as a GPT for interior-designing your house or a GPT specifically trained on your mother's cooking recipes.

Or in Sam Altman's case, a GPT that gives you advice on how to pull off a second act!

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