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In the tech spotlight: Who is ChatGPT maker OpenAI’s CEO Sam Altman?

Gelo Gonzales

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In the tech spotlight: Who is ChatGPT maker OpenAI’s CEO Sam Altman?

OPENAI CEO. Sam Altman speaks at the Wall Street Journal Digital Conference in Laguna Beach, California, US, October 18, 2017

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Sam Altman makes what he describes as a 'contentious unilateral decision' when OpenAI decided to release ChatGPT in November 2022 despite lingering fears from engineers then

MANILA, Philippines – Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Jack Dorsey – these are but a few of the tech CEOs who have made their outsized imprint on society. 

Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, the company that made the now-inescapable chatbot ChatGPT, likely will join their ranks in the future, as OpenAI’s product carries the torch for this new era of automation for generating content. 

As Silicon Valley’s leading figure in the category, it’s important that we know him better, so we know who exactly to question in case artificial intelligence takes over the world indeed. 

He’s contradicted himself in terms of how he wants to be perceived as a leader, and how he has behaved

In a profile by Washington Post, published April 8, 2023, Altman is said to have interviewed LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, who had agreed to join OpenAI’s board, in front of his employees. He grilled Hoffman as to what the board would do if he were to fail as CEO. Hoffman was eventually pressed to say, “We’d fire you.” The newspaper wrote that Altman made a point then, that he was not an autocrat. 

However, Altman’s actions didn’t always match his image. ChatGPT’s public release in November 2022 was, as Altman himself described, a “contentious unilateral decision” – and likely one of the biggest decisions for the company up to that point – breaking the company’s usual methods of consensus that involve employee debates, and expert consultation. Engineers at the company had feared it wasn’t ready to be released yet. 

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says Altman has “this ability to bet big.”

Altman carries familiar tech altruism 

The Washington Post writes, “Altman insists the company’s ultimate goal is to benefit all of humanity.” Google said before, “Don’t be evil.” Facebook wanted to “bring the world closer together.” But as we’d later realize, as these firms became the giant businesses they are now, profits can supersede whatever benevolent mission they might have had. 

Money matters

Altman, aside from his decision to release ChatGPT unilaterally, also changed OpenAI from being a nonprofit to a “capped profit” organization – meaning it could take on investors but with certain limits – when he took over as CEO in May 2019. Washington Post describes the structure as such: “Investors are entitled to earn 100 times their investment, but everything over that flows to the company’s nonprofit arm.” 

Microsoft became one of its biggest investors, allowing OpenAI access to its cloud servers and computing power said to be necessary for the tech to remain competitive with other tech giants also already in the space. Microsoft is a legacy firm, which was supposedly exactly the kind of company that OpenAI and its philosophy wanted to go against. Wisdom tells us that where money flows, the river is less pure. Time will tell. 

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“If you want to compete with Microsoft, you can’t use OpenAI,” one tech executive tells The Post. 

Move fast, break things 2.0?

Altman’s public release of ChatGPT (based on GPT version 3.5) despite internal pushback and its continued development despite technologists calling for a slowdown feels like the old Zuckerberg/Silicon Valley motto on moving fast and breaking things. 

If there had been no big financial ties, would OpenAI have released ChatGPT in 2022 to gain first-to-market advantage? That it attempted and successfully gained first-to-market advantage tells you that it indeed views itself in a match against the Googles and the Facebooks of the world – and if that’s the case, how dirty would it play or how would it prevent itself from being another Google and Facebook, which are not always known for sterling scruples? 

Altman also said he wants some form of government regulation but that’ll take time as well. Combined with big money already in play, and familiar issues on copyright, data privacy, and the use of data (Italy banned ChatGPT on these grounds), we have more than a few classic ingredients of the Big Tech and social media disasters that have already shook and continue to shake the world. 

At this rate, Altman might just tick another box soon for the classic erring tech CEO: the marathon US congressional hearing.

Other Altman fun facts
  • Altman was born in 1985, and is currently 37 years old. 
  • Altman will be embarking on a global tour to meet with developers and policy makers in May and June 2023, including stops in Toronto, Washington DC, Madrid, Paris, New Delhi, Singapore, Jakarta, Seoul, Tokyo, and Melbourne.
  • He enrolled in computer science at Stanford but dropped out in 2005
  • He made an app called Loopt that same year, which tracked people’s locations, but was a failure, according to his own admission.
  • Loopt was part of the first cohort of popular Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator, which would later be known for helping launch Airbnb, Quora, Reddit, Dropbox, and Twitch, among others. 
  • Altman would join Y Combinator in 2011, and become its president in 2014.
  • He co-founded OpenAI in 2015 together with Elon Musk, as the first project of a Y Combinator research lab called YC Research
  • Altman served as CEO of Reddit in 2014 for 8 days, after the resignation of then-CEO Yishan Wong

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Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.