As soon as he is sacked, as soon as he is recruited. Sam Altman, the public face of OpenAI, which launched the generative artificial intelligence platform ChatGPT, joined the teams of computer giant Microsoft on Monday, November 20, a few days after his surprise dismissal.
The dismissal on Friday, for reasons that are still unclear, of the man who has become a Silicon Valley superstar in one year was surprising, as the 38-year-old entrepreneur was considered a pioneer and one of the leading figures in a sector with considerable stakes, that of artificial intelligence (AI).
Three days later, Satya Nadella, the Microsoft boss who has invested billions of dollars in the computing infrastructure used by OpenAI, announced that he was hiring him, along with other executives who had resigned after his dismissal, "to lead a new AI research team."
"The mission continues," he said on X (ex-Twitter).
Sam Altman created OpenAI (initially a non-profit foundation) in 2015, with the idea of developing AI that would be "safe and benefit humanity," in the words of Elon Musk, one of the co-founders ousted in 2019, in an interview with the New York Times.
AI has been in the spotlight since millions of people adopted ChatGPT, OpenAI's interface that can converse with humans in natural language and generate all kinds of text on a simple query.
"As (artificial) intelligence is integrated everywhere, we'll all have superpowers on demand," Sam Altman promised at a conference on Thursday, on the eve of his dismissal.
Faced with the strong concerns raised, particularly about democracy and employment, the entrepreneur assured AFP: "I have a lot of empathy for people's feelings, whatever their feelings."
Pushing the boundaries
Born in April 1985, the entrepreneur grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. His life changes when he gets a Mac for his eighth birthday. The Internet helps him live his homosexuality when he still has "no one to talk to about it," he told Esquire in 2014.
He studied computer science at Stanford but soon left university to create the social network Loopt in 2005, which was valued at more than $43 million when he sold it in 2012. In 2014, he became head of Y Combinator, which invests in start-ups and advises entrepreneurs, in exchange for shares. The organization has helped Airbnb, Stripe, and Reddit, among others.
Under his leadership, the incubator is expanding far beyond software to include start-ups from many other sectors, such as Industrial Microbes, a biotech start-up.
Its chairman, Derek Greenfield, remembers someone who was very "intense". "He thinks and speaks fast, he asks the tough questions but always in an encouraging way," he describes. "He pushed the boundaries. I don't know where we'd be if he hadn't transformed (Y Combinator)."
"He's a (deeply thoughtful) thinker who is hell-bent on getting it right," said Jeremy Goldman of Insider Intelligence. A fan of shorts and T-shirts, a sports car enthusiast and an airplane pilot in his spare time, Sam Altman often gives the impression of being an introvert.
He says he's an optimist but he's also a survivalist, according to the New Yorker: he stores weapons, gold, water and antibiotics at his Big Sur property on the California coast.
In favour of a universal basic income
The prolific entrepreneur has personally invested in different companies, including $375 million in Helion, a nuclear fusion start-up.
"My vision for the future and the reason I love (Helion and OpenAI) is that if we can really bring down the cost of intelligence and the cost of energy, the quality of life for everyone is going to go up dramatically," he told CNBC in May.
In July, it officially launched Worldcoin, a new cryptocurrency with an identity verification system based on the human iris. The stated objective: to reduce the risk of fraud and scams in an industry where the use of pseudonyms is common.
On the political side, he called Donald Trump a "threat to national security" and organized a fundraiser for Democratic candidate Andrew Yang, who advocates a universal basic income, i.e. a minimum allowance for all, which would compensate for the loss of jobs due to automation.
"It's not complicated: we need technology to create more wealth and a policy that distributes it fairly," Altman wrote on his blog.
"The technological progress we (will achieve) in the next 2021 years will be far greater than anything we have accomplished since we first mastered fire and invented the wheel," he predicted in a <> blog post.
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