The Man Behind ChatGPT Is About To Have His Moment On Capitol Hill

The Man Behind ChatGPT Is About To Have His Moment On Capitol Hill

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In 2017, there were several months of rumors that Sam Altman was going to run for governor of California. Instead, he kept his job as one of Silicon Valley's most influential funders and entrepreneurs.

But now Altman is preparing for another political debut.

Sid Altman, CEO and co-founder of OpenAI, the artificial intelligence company that created the viral chatbot ChatGPT and image maker Dall-E, will testify before Congress on Tuesday. His speech is part of a Senate subcommittee hearing on the risks artificial intelligence poses to society and the protections needed for the technology.

Lawmakers from both parties are also expected to have dinner with Altman on Monday night, according to multiple reports. Dozens of lawmakers reportedly plan to attend, with one Republican lawmaker calling it part of a congressional process to assess the "potentially extraordinary and unprecedented threat artificial intelligence poses to humanity."

Earlier this month, Altman was one of several technology CEOs who met with Vice President Kamala Harris and briefly with President Joe Biden to stress the importance of developing ethical and responsible AI at the White House.

Hearings and meetings are underway as ChatGPT begins a new AI arms race. A growing list of tech companies in recent months have launched new AI tools that could improve the way we work, shop and interact with each other. However, the same tools have also been criticized by some of the biggest names in tech for their potential to destroy millions of jobs, spread misinformation and perpetuate bias.

As CEO of OpenAI, perhaps more than any other character, Altman has become the face of a new set of artificial intelligence products capable of generating images and text in response to user input. This week's hearings will only strengthen his position as a key player in the rapid development of artificial intelligence and increase the control he and his company have over it.

Those who knew Altman described him as a brilliant thinker, a man who made conscious bets, and even called him the "hopeless Yoda." In an interview this year, Altman introduced himself as a person who understands the dangers of AI and is even "a little afraid" of this technology. He and his company are committed to moving forward responsibly.

"If anyone knows what it's all about, it's Sam," Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky wrote of Altman in a post announcing Altman's inclusion on Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People list this year. But Sam also knows that he doesn't have all the answers. He often says: "What are you thinking about? Maybe I'm wrong?" Praise be to God, Who has so much strength and so much humility.

Others wish Altman and OpenAI would be more careful. Elon Musk, who helped develop OpenAI before leaving the group, along with dozens of tech leaders, professors and researchers, signed a letter calling on AI labs like OpenAI to stop training high-performance AI systems for at least six months, citing : Deep. Risks." on society and humanity.

Altman said he agreed with parts of the letter. "I think it's very important to be careful and increase security," Altman said at an event last month. "Letter, I don't think this is the best way to solve this problem."

OpenAI declined to be interviewed for this story.

Bill Gates is next

ChatGPT's success brought Altman into the public eye, but he was a popular figure in Silicon Valley for years.

Before co-founding OpenAI with Musk in 2015, Altman, a native of Missouri, studied computer science at Stanford University, then dropped out to start Loopt, an app that helped users share their location with friends and redeem coupons for nearby stores .

In 2005, Loopt was one of the first companies in Y Combinator, the respected technology accelerator. Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator, later called Altman "a very extraordinary person."

"I remember three minutes after meeting him I thought, 'Wow, this is what Bill Gates must have been like when he was 19,'" Graham wrote in a 2006 post.

© Courtesy of CNN OpenAI Co-Founder and CEO Sam Altman on stage during TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco 2019 at Moscone Convention Center on October 3, 2019 in San Francisco, California. — Steve Jennings/Getty Images

Loopt was acquired in 2012 for approximately $43 million. Two years later, Altman Graham took over as president of Y Combinator. The position allowed Altman to connect with many influential figures in the technology industry. He remained on the accelerator until 2019.

Margaret O'Mara, a technology historian and professor at the University of Washington, told CNN that Altman "has long been admired as a thoughtful, important person and as a lot of influential people who are involved in some way in engineering and technology... . have great influence " ."

During the Trump administration, Altman again drew attention as an outspoken critic of the president. With that in mind, he was rumored to be considering a run for governor of California.

Instead of running, Altman sought candidates who aligned with his values, including a low cost of living, clean energy and a 10 percent cut in the defense budget for research and development of future technologies.

Altman continues to develop some of these goals through his work in the private sector. He invested in research firm Helion, which last week signed a deal with Microsoft to sell clean energy to the tech giant until 2028.

Altman also supported the idea of ​​a universal basic income and suggested that artificial intelligence could one day help achieve this goal by creating enough wealth to redistribute among the population.

As Graham told the New Yorker about Altman in 2016, "I think his goal is to create the whole future."

The overnight sensation of artificial intelligence has been around for years

Musk and Altman's original mission when starting OpenAI was to overcome fears that artificial intelligence could harm people and society.

"We talked about the best thing we could do to ensure a bright future," Musk told the New York Times of the conversation he had with Altman and others before founding the company. "We can sit side by side, or we can encourage regulatory oversight, or we can engage in the right framework with people who care deeply about developing AI that is both safe and beneficial to humanity."

In an interview at OpenAI's launch, Altman explained that the company is trying to define the path forward for AI technology. "I sleep better knowing I can make a difference right now," he said.

If there's one thing AI fans and experts alike can agree on right now, it's that Altman has clearly managed to have some impact on the rapidly evolving technology.

Less than six months after its launch, ChatGPT has become a household name, almost synonymous with artificial intelligence. Executives use it to compose emails. Brokers use it to write documents and draft legal documents. The tool has passed exams in law and business schools and has been used to help some students cheat. OpenAI recently released a more powerful version of the technology used in ChatGPT.

Tech giants like Google and Facebook are now trying to catch up. Similar generative AI technology is quickly finding applications in research and productivity tools used by billions of people.

A future that once seemed so far away now seems close, whether society is ready for it or not. Altman himself admitted that he was not sure how this could have happened.

O'Mara said he thinks Altman fits "an optimistic school of thought that's existed in the Valley for a very long time," describing it as "the idea that we can develop technology that can really change the world for the better ". "

While Altman's cautionary tales about AI may contradict this thinking, O'Mara argues that it may be an "extension" of it. It's all about "the idea that technology is transformative and can bring about positive change, but also has so much potential that it can be really dangerous," he said.

And if AI somehow contributes to the demise of society as we know it, Altman may be more inclined to adapt than most.

"I'm ready to survive," he said in a 2016 article in The New Yorker, listing several potential disaster scenarios, including "AI attacking us."

"I try not to think about it too much," Altman said. "But I have weapons, gold, potassium iodide, antibiotics, batteries, water, Tzahal gas masks, and plenty of room in Big Sur to fly to."

CNN's Brian Fong contributed to this report.

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