Who is Sam Altman, the OpenAI CEO Testifying at Congress?

Altman, like most other AI business leaders, says the field needs regulation. Here's what we can expect from his first congressional hearing.

5 Min Read
OpenAI Co-Founder and CEO Sam Altman speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco 2019.
OpenAI Co-Founder and CEO Sam Altman speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco 2019.Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch

On Tuesday, OpenAI chief executive Sam Altman will testify in front of a congressional committee about his company and the explosion of AI tech that's happened over the last year, one of the first major events as lawmakers dig into how to regulate the new technology.

Altman is at the center of the AI boom thanks to OpenAI's generative AI chatbot ChatGPT, and one of the field's most influential leaders. He's already met with White House officials as part of a visit by him and other tech CEOs earlier this month.

Now, Altman will answer questions from a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, acting as a quasi-industry spokesman for companies racing ahead to deploy chatbots and other tools to the public, including Google and Microsoft. Topics are likely to include the risks of AI, competition in the industry and how government should handle it - and maybe even whether robots are going to kill us all.

Here's what you need to know.

Who is OpenAI CEO Sam Altman?

Altman, 38, grew up in St. Louis and got into coding as a kid. He went to Stanford, but dropped out in 2005 to start Loopt, an early social media app that predated the wide adoption of smartphones. He sold the company seven years later and has said his early attempt at being an entrepreneur was a failure.

He began working at Y Combinator, a start-up incubator that helped early-stage tech companies grow and raise money. The job put him at the center of the venture capital boom and he became a mentee of tech leaders like LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, Palantir co-founder Peter Thiel and venture capitalist Paul Graham. He eventually ran Y Combinator and built up his own reputation as a venture capitalist and mentor for other founders.

Altman has dabbled in politics, considering a run for governor of California in 2018 and holding a fundraiser for outside democratic presidential nomination candidate Andrew Yang in 2019. He donated to President Biden's election campaign.

What is OpenAI?

Altman pushed Y Combinator to begin researching big-picture issues like universal basic income, urban planning and AI. OpenAI began as an offshoot of the tech incubator, and was meant to be run as a nonprofit organization that would act as a counterweight to the Big Tech companies pouring money into AI research and hiring up the field's brightest minds. It was funded by donations from tech heavyweights including Twitter owner Elon Musk, Thiel and Hoffman.

The organization hired respected researchers and began putting out papers. In 2019, Altman formally left Y Combinator to run OpenAI full-time, and he quickly shifted the organization from being a nonprofit to a for-profit company which took on venture capital funding. Altman has said the change was necessary to access the money needed to keep up with Google, Microsoft and the other tech giants, but the move was controversial.

Musk is one of many who've criticized OpenAI's new path, tweeting in March that he was confused how a nonprofit he donated money to now has a $30 billion valuation. (Musk has since started working on his own AI company.)

What is ChatGPT, OpenAI's chatbot?

In November, OpenAI launched ChatGPT, a bot that can have conversations, answer complex questions on any topic and write computer code. The tech accelerated an AI arms race and has helped push bigger companies like Microsoft and Google to push out their own chatbot and AI-powered products at a rapid pace.

Earlier in 2022, the firm also put out DALL-E, a AI tool that can conjure images based on a text prompt. Many of the images went viral, spurring broad interest in generative AI in a way the field hadn't seen before.

What has Altman said about AI regulation?

Altman, like most other AI business leaders, says the field needs regulation. In an interview with ABC in March he said he was concerned about the potential for AI to be used to supercharge the spread of disinformation, or to improve the ability of hackers to break into computer systems. But he's against calls to stop or pause AI development.

The way OpenAI is working, by putting new tools into the public realm while they are still early will help people spot the bigger risks the technology brings before it's too late, he's argued. He's been busy pushing his message out to the public. In April, he traveled to a dozen countries around the world to speak to politicians about AI.

What can we expect from Altman's first congressional hearing?

Altman has a reputation for being calm, coming across as thoughtful and well-mannered. He'll likely trade on that personality to present an even, serious face for his company and the wider industry.

Like every big congressional hearing on tech over the last few years, we can expect a few basic questions that reveal the lack of technical knowledge some politicians have. However, some congresspeople have been digging into AI for several weeks and months now, and some may ask very pointed questions about the risks of the tech and where the business landscape is going.

Altman will also likely contrast his company with Big Tech, potentially framing himself as bringing an important level of competition to an industry dominated for years by Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft. Altman could also say the United States needs to let its own tech companies take the lead in AI so it can stay ahead of Chinese tech, an argument other tech leaders have used.

--Gerrit De Vynck, The Washington Post

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