Gold Penguin Logo with Text

Who is Sam Altman? Everything To Know About the CEO of OpenAI

Sam Altman is the CEO of OpenAI, the company behind disruptive tech tools likes ChatGPT and DALL-E. But what do we really know of Sam Altman? Will he steer the world of AI for good? Here's everything we could find about his life story
Updated April 18, 2024
Sam Altman and the Future, made with Midjourney
Sam Altman and the Future, made with Midjourney

There has always been one person that defined a point in history. It could be someone in a position of power like George Washington, someone whose intellect surpassed what we know of reality like Albert Einstein, or someone ordinary doing extraordinary things like Rosa Parks.

Today, there's no doubt in my mind that Sam Altman will be memorialized in history books. Artificial intelligence will soon take over the world, for better or worse, and it's going to be Altman who will be named the architect of what's to come.

Some have called him the Oppenheimer of our times, a man who lived to regret his own decision. Some say Altman's a genius, and some say he's a madman.

So, who is Sam Altman really? What do we know of this Silicon Valley behemoth?

Sam Altman, The Wonder Years

There’s little to no information about Sam Altman’s early years. Despite being a prominent figure, all we have about his childhood are the cliff notes: he was born in 1985 in St. Louis, Missouri, he’s Jewish, attended a private school, and — since it’s essential lore for important people in tech — he received his first computer at the age of 8.

Sam Altman's public life began at Stanford. Similar to his contemporaries like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, Altman dropped out of college to pursue greater things.

At 19, Altman left Stanford to focus solely on a social networking application he co-founded known as Loopt.

Loopt Interface

Loopt had a good run — even raising $30 million at one point — but it didn’t last. At a valuation of more than $43 million, Altman and his colleagues sold the company in 2012.

However, unlike MySpace Tom, Sam Altman wasn’t ready to call it quits after selling his software. His next few years in technology would soon define the world as we know it today.

Sam Altman, The Kingmaker (The Y Combinator Years)

It’s no exaggeration to say that Sam Altman played a huge part in shaping the tech world as we know it today. In 2011, Sam Altman was named a partner at Y Combinator: the world-renowned startup accelerator and venture capital firm. Then, in 2014, he was named its president.

Becoming a part of Y Combinator is a badge of legitimacy in the startup community. It's like winning Shark Tank, but you're guided by the best minds in business and guaranteed $500,000 in seed funding.

Under Sam Altman’s leadership, Y Combinator’s cadre of companies had a total valuation of $150 billion. He also personally invested in the following companies during this time:

  • Reddit: Social media website.
  • Helion Energy: Fusion energy company.
  • Airbnb: Peer-to-peer online renting platform.
  • Stripe: Online multinational payment and SaaS service.
  • Wave Mobile Money: Mobile financial services for Africa.

Apart from those personal investments, the Sam Altman YC era also oversaw the growth of companies such as:

  • Social Platforms: Quora, Twitch
  • SaaS: Zapier, Gusto, DoorDash, Unbabel
  • Development: Codecademy, HackerRank, Firebase, Mongo, WebFlow, Women Who Code, GitLab

However, in 2019, Sam Altman stepped down as president of Y Combinator. What came next launched Sam Altman to the mainstream…

Sam Altman, The Disruptor (The OpenAI Era)

Let's rewind the clock four years to 2015. A former Stripe software developer, Sam Brockman, met with Yoshua Bengio — the founding father of deep learning — to ask him for a list of the best minds in artificial intelligence. The latter obliged, and from that list came what's now known as OpenAI.

OpenAI was formed by Sam Altman and Greg Brockman, along with other respected figures in the field like Reid Hoffman, Jessica Livingston, Peter Thiel, and Elon Musk. This group pledged $1 billion to reach one goal: to create a universally adopted, altruistic artificial intelligence.

True to this, Sam Altman testified before the US Senate Judiciary Committee and advocated for proper governance of artificial intelligence.

Under Altman and Brockman's stewardship, OpenAI launched various AI-powered products, such as:

GPT and ChatGPT

Generative Pre-Trained Transformer (GPT) is OpenAI’s biggest accomplishment to date. This large language model (LLM) uses deep learning to generate text, write content, and answer questions. It’s trained on an unfathomable amount of data for accuracy and nuance.

You can access GPT using ChatGPT: OpenAI’s most recognizable product. It’s an AI chatbot with a wide range of niche applications, including for industries such as education, graphic design, business, content creation, and development.

ChatGPT Interface

However, ChatGPT is also known to cause controversy — especially in the education sector. With many students claiming they’ve been sanctioned for false positives, only time will tell how Altman and the rest of OpenAI will mitigate this widespread issue.

DALL-E

A precursor to more popular generative AI image products such as Midjourney, DALL-E remains a staple of the AI image generation community. Publicly launched in 2022, the second version of DALL-E can generate high-quality images and artwork from a single prompt.

It doesn't work as well as Midjourney does, but we're rapidly seeing improvements with the recent announcement of DALL-E 3

DALL-E 3 Landing Page

Codex

Unlike ChatGPT and DALL-E, Codex — OpenAI’s LLM for coding — doesn’t exist as a platform. However, Codex powers Copilot: GitHub’s AI for development. It’s fluent in twelve programming languages, including Python and Javascript, and can create full systems for scratch or answer any programming question.

Codex Landing Page

Sam Altman, The Contrarian (Controversies)

Public figures are not exempt from scrutiny, especially those in the 1%. From Steve Jobs to Elon Musk, tech leaders have always been controversial — and Sam Altman seems to be next in line.

These are some of Sam Altman’s most notable controversies:

  • Association with Peter Thiel. Sam Altman’s refusal to disassociate with Peter Thiel after he publicly supported Donald Trump’s run for presidency raised some eyebrows in the online community.
  • The India Controversy. In 2023, Altman made a dismissive remark that it would be "hopeless" for India to develop a foundational AI model like ChatGPT from scratch.
  • The China Comment. Frustrated with US regulations, Altman said in a blog post that he preferred discussing controversial ideas in Beijing than San Francisco. China is known for its government-mandated censorship.
  • WorldCoin. Sam Altman founded a cryptocurrency project to create a global digital identity system by scanning eyeballs to collect biometric data. Critics argue that Altman’s collection of biometric data is a privacy nightmare.
  • OpenAI. The ongoing debate on the ethics of AI and its implications. Furthermore, there was also an uproar regarding their partnership with Microsoft — which some people deemed a betrayal of the altruistic vision of OpenAI and a step towards commercialization and capitalism.

Sam Altman, The Visionary (What's Next)

Sam Altman has a vision for the future, and he's doing his best to execute it. Based on his interviews over the past few months, Sam Altman has focused on the following topics:

Artificial Intelligence

Sam Altman and the OpenAI team aren’t done yet. GPT and DALL-E aren’t the final stages — they’re just milestones toward an AI model that ticks off the following boxes:

OpenAI's Mission

So, what’s next for OpenAI? We don’t know for sure, as they don’t offer a roadmap. However, it’s a reasonable assumption that GPT-5 and DALL-E 4 are up next.

Nuclear Fusion

Sam Altman is a proponent of nuclear energy, believing it our greatest chance at solving the world's energy crisis. He's invested in not one but two nuclear fusion companies: Helion Energy (which was just recently bought by Microsoft) and Oklo. He is also the acting chairman of the former, a company whose purpose is to build the world's first sustainable fusion power plant.

Nuclear Fusion Visualization

Universal Basic Income

Another subject Sam Altman is passionate about is Universal Basic Income or UBI. This program would provide every citizen with consistent, unconditional money. In fact, during the 2020 Democratic Primaries, he supported Andrew Yang, a fellow venture capitalist whose central platform is UBI. 

While that sounds good on paper, there's a lot of controversy surrounding UBI. Some argue that it would discourage people from working, but most oppose the program because it's too expensive and idealistic.

Sam Altman launched Worldcoin mainly due to his UBI advocacy. While we don't have the exact details, he believes his cryptocurrency would lay the groundwork for this policy to become a reality. As previously mentioned, this is met with scrutiny and skepticism from the public and media alike, with many calling it a massive privacy violation due to its biometric data collection.

So, Who Is Sam Altman?

How do we define a person? Is it through the sum of their awards, achievements, controversies, or history? Sam Altman has worn so many masks throughout his remarkable life — so who is he really?

To the world, it’s simple: Sam Altman is the father of the single most disruptive technology we’ve seen in years. OpenAI (and, by extension, ChatGPT) and Sam Altman will always be intertwined, no matter what the next few years hold.

Personally, I'd say Sam Altman is a complicated man. He's brilliant, but he's prone to hypocrisy. He speaks his mind, for better or worse. He has the ego of someone self-assured that his name will go into the annals of history. And, honestly — with how artificial intelligence is developing — can you blame him?

Want To Learn Even More?
If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to our free monthly newsletter
where we share tips & tricks on how to use tech & AI to grow and optimize your business, career, and life.
Written by John Angelo Yap
Hi, I'm Angelo. I'm currently an undergraduate student studying Software Engineering. Now, you might be wondering, what is a computer science student doing writing for Gold Penguin? I took up studying computer science because it was practical and because I was good at it. But, if I had the chance, I'd be writing for a career. Building worlds and adjectivizing nouns for no other reason other than they sound good. And that's why I'm here.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Join Our Newsletter!
If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to our newsletter where we share tips & tricks on how to make use of some incredible AI tools that you can use to grow and optimize a business
magnifiercross