In a relatively short period of time, Sam Altman has emerged as one of the most prominent figures in the artificial intelligence revolution. Born in 1985 in Chicago, Altman displayed a remarkable early aptitude for technology. At the age of eight, as reported by The New Yorker, he had already delved into programming and disassembling computers.
In the early 2000s, Altman enrolled at Stanford University, but in 2005, he made the decision to leave his formal education behind. This move marked the beginning of his entrepreneurial journey when he co-founded Loopt; an application designed to enable users to share their location with others. Compatible with iPhones, BlackBerrys, Androids and Windows Phones, Loopt gained recognition as one of the early players in the location-based services industry with more than five million registered users, however, seven years after its founding, it was acquired for US$43.4m by Green Dot Corporation.
In 2011, Altman took on a part-time partnership role at startup accelerator firm, Y Combinator, and just three years later, he was appointed as president by its co-founder, Paul Graham. After a series of successful years, Altman assumed the position of president for the YC Group, which included not only Y Combinator but also other associated organisations. As president, Altman’s aim was to expand the Y Combinator fund to accommodate 1,000 new companies per year and has been instrumental in the success of many notable companies, including Dropbox, Airbnb, and Reddit.
The founding of OpenAI
In addition to his roles in these organisations, Altman has been an advocate for artificial intelligence and has worked on a range of AI-related projects. He is recognised as one of the most influential and prominent figures in the technology and startup ecosystem, with his accomplishments and contributions earning him a spot on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in venture capital, in 2015.
Also in 2015, alongside Elon Musk, Ilya Sutskever, Greg Brockman, John Schulman, and Wojciech Zaremba, Alman established OpenAI. Initially created as a non-profit organisation, OpenAI's mission was, “to advance digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole, unconstrained by a need to generate financial return.” The goal was to develop ethical AI and establish leadership in the field before people with malicious intent could create anything harmful.
In an interview with ABC News, Altman said: “A thing that I do worry about is we’re not going to be the only creator of this technology. There will be other people who don’t put some of the safety limits that we put on it. Society, I think, has a limited amount of time to figure out how to react to that, how to regulate that, how to handle it.”
A major success in the AI space
In early 2018, Elon Musk made an attempt to take control of OpenAI, expressing concerns that the organisation was lagging behind Google, but by February, Musk decided to step back, leaving Altman in charge of OpenAI.
In the early stages of his leadership, during the spring of 2019, one of the first steps taken by Altman was to create a for-profit subsidiary. The development of AI was proving expensive and Altman found himself in need of funding. By the summer, he successfully secured US$1 billion in investment from Microsoft. In the same year and in addition to OpenAI, Altman also founded Worldcoin, a project centred around iris biometric cryptocurrency, successfully securing US$115m in funding for the initiative's advancement.
In 2020, OpenAI unveiled the large language model GPT-3, followed by the introduction of DALL-E in 2021, a deep-learning model capable of creating digital images based on text descriptions. By 2022, OpenAI introduced its latest AI conversational chatbot, ChatGPT. Within a span of two months, the software had brought in a staggering 100 million users, making it the greatest product launch in tech history. In 2023, Microsoft announced its new multi-year US$10 billion investment in OpenAI Global LLC.
In an interview with Time, Altman comments: “It’s [AI] going to transform the way people interact with the world. In a deep sense, AI is the technology that the world, that people, have always wanted.”