Sam Altman said his lack of equity in OpenAI, the $27 billion company he cofounded and helms as CEO, doesn’t bother him because he already has “enough money.” But the 38-year old techie acknowledged that being the world’s unofficial A.I. kingpin comes with plenty of other perks.
“I still get a lot of selfish benefit from this,” Altman said Thursday at the Bloomberg Tech Summit in San Francisco, in response to a question about having no ownership stake in the artificial intelligence startup he helped establish. Altman said that leading OpenAI provides advantages like having “impact,” having access that puts him “in the room for interesting conversations,” and having an “interesting life.”
“This concept of having enough money is not something that is easy to get across to other people,” Altman said.
Founded in 2015, OpenAI is one of the most recognizable players in the generative A.I. industry, with products like ChatGPT and DALL-E that helped ignite an A.I. gold rush among venture capital firms, startups, and Big Tech. Microsoft has invested $13 billion in OpenAI and is infusing its technology throughout its product line.
Altman has been on a world tour, from Tel Aviv and Dubai to Washington, D.C., talking with lawmakers about the dangers and benefits of A.I. In fact, Bloomberg said it had to rearrange the event’s schedule on Thursday because Altman needed to be in D.C. by evening for “something very important,” which turned out to be a White House dinner with the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi.
As the company reaches new heights, the question on some minds is: Will Altman financially benefit from OpenAI’s success? The answer he gave on stage Thursday, and in March during an interview with the New York Times, is that he holds no stake in OpenAI. The only thing he stands to gain is an “immaterial” fraction of his initial investment through Y Combinator.
“I have like wondered if I should, like, just take one share of equity so I never have to answer this question again,” Altman said, adding that OpenAI operates under the governance of a nonprofit organization, on whose board of directors he serves. To maintain the board’s majority independence from the company, Altman initially chose not to hold any stake in OpenAI.
Altman previously served as the CEO of Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley startup “accelerator” that has backed companies now worth billions of dollars, including Airbnb, Stripe, and DoorDash. He has said that one of his primary interests in A.I. is attaining a breakthrough known as artificial general intelligence, or AGI, in which computers will supposedly become as capable as humans—a situation he believes society and regulators need to prepare for.
It’s worth noting that Altman’s comments disavowing any financial interest in OpenAI do not imply that OpenAI will cease to pursue commercial opportunities or generate revenue, something Twitter owner Elon Musk has criticized Altman about to a great extent.
“Why is he working on something that won’t make him richer? One answer is that lots of people do that once they have enough money, which Sam probably does,” Altman’s mentor and founder of Y Combinator, Paul Graham, told the New York Times in March. “The other is that he likes power.”
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