Who is OpenAI chief executive Sam Altman?

The two-time chief executive of ChatGPT developer learnt to code in high school and quit Stanford University to launch a mobile app

In a matter of days, Sam Altman became a two-time chief executive of OpenAI. Reuters
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His artificial intelligence-powered start-up attracted global attention – but over the past few tumultuous days, Sam Altman has been in the spotlight for the most unexpected reasons.

After a wild back-and-forth corporate drama, Mr Altman is back as chief executive of OpenAI, which is behind the popular ChatGPT tool, a free chatbot that answers questions with convincingly humanlike responses and even learns as it interacts with users.

Mr Altman was ousted by OpenAI's board on Friday, a shock move that blindsided even Microsoft, the California-based company's biggest backer. The board said the 38-year-old was fired because he was not consistently candid in his communications.

Then, on Wednesday, OpenAI said it had reached an agreement for Mr Altman to return as chief executive, following days of intense, flip-flopping discussions. The company also agreed in principle to partly reconstitute the board of directors that had fired him.

On Monday, OpenAI had named ex-Twitch boss Emmett Shear as its interim chief executive, after OpenAI chief technology officer Mira Murati was briefly tasked to take over. Mr Altman, meanwhile, was appointed by Microsoft to lead a new advanced AI research team.

OpenAI's staff reportedly threatened to quit and join Mr Altman at Microsoft's new AI unit unless the board resigned, mounting pressure on the company.

On Wednesday, Mr Altman said: “I'm looking forward to returning to openai,” in a post on social media platform X, formerly Twitter.

Mr Altman, a native of St Louis, Missouri, learnt to code and explore the internet in high school, he told New Yorker magazine.

He started in technology when he founded Loopt, a mobile app that lets users share their locations among friends, with two other Stanford University classmates. The group dropped out of university to work on the project.

Before OpenAI, Mr Altman was president of Y Combinator, a start-up accelerator group in Silicon Valley, and served as chief executive of social media platform Reddit for a short time.

Business Insider reported that he also dabbles in doomsday preparation, with gas masks, gold and guns on hand in case of a sudden apocalyptic event.

Mr Altman is a dedicated philanthropist, investing in Covid-19 research during the pandemic and developing a programme that would give digital money to every person on Earth free of charge – though the latter has since been suspended due to logistical issues.

But his current focus – and what he is best known for – is ChatGPT.

The tool became high-profile, with Mr Altman calling for “regulatory intervention by governments” to curb the dangers posed by AI.

What started out as a panic among educators about ChatGPT's use to cheat on homework assignments has expanded to broader concerns about the ability of the latest crop of “generative AI” tools to mislead people, spread falsehoods, violate copyright protections and upend some jobs.

“OpenAI was founded on the belief that artificial intelligence has the potential to improve nearly every aspect of our lives, but also that it creates serious risks,” Mr Altman said.

He added that in time, generative AI developed by OpenAI will “address some of humanity's biggest challenges, like climate change and curing cancer”.

However, given the risk of misinformation, destroying human jobs and other problems, “we think that regulatory intervention by governments will be critical to mitigate the risks of increasingly powerful models”, he said.

During its spectacular rise, ChatGPT created a whole new ecosystem and, more importantly, a new arms race in the tech world.

Google led challengers with its Bard technology, while Microsoft has pledged to ramp up its own generative AI capabilities, most notably with its Copilot service embedded in its Office 365 suite of applications. Tech majors like Oracle and Samsung Electronics have also thrown their hat into the arena.

It has also encouraged X owner Elon Musk to join the fray with his xAI team and even prompted Apple chief executive Tim Cook to acknowledge that the company was working on its own generative AI technologies.

Agencies contributed to this report

Updated: November 22, 2023, 10:41 AM