AI poised to change world 'like mobile phones did', says OpenAI's Sam Altman

Technology tycoon says UAE is well-positioned as AI builds momentum

OpenAI chief executive Sam Altman takes part in a video discussion at the World Governments Summit in Dubai. Antonie Robertson/The National
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OpenAI technology chief executive Sam Altman said artificial intelligence was the “most exciting frontier” he could possibly imagine, during a speech at the 2024 World Governments Summit in Dubai.

“It will unlock a future that’s difficult for me to imagine in terms of how good it will be,” he said, reflecting on the rise of ChatGPT and AI, generally.

Mr Altman said the technology sector was only scratching the surface of what could be accomplished through generative AI and large language models (LLMs).

“The current technology we have is like that very first cell phone with the black and white screen that could only display numbers,” he said.

“It just didn't do much, but there was enough in that technology. You could make a call, but then it took many decades to the iPhones we have today, and it’s incredible.”

Mr Altman said that, like the early iterations of mobile phones, it will take a massive amount of work for AI to reach its true potential.

“You have to be patient, give us some time,” he said. “In a few more years it will be much better than it is right now and in a decade, it should be pretty remarkable … imagine a world where everyone gets a great personal tutor, great personalised medical advice."

The OpenAI chief also pushed for a global AI watchdog system to monitor what happens with the most powerful AI systems.

“[It could] decide what sort of auditing and safety measures need to be in place before you could deploy a superintelligence system,” he said, referring to potential new AI systems that could pass human capabilities.

“For a bunch of reasons, the UAE would be well-positioned to be a leader in the discussions around that.”

Omar Al Olama, Minister of State for AI, Digital Economy and Remote Work Applications, opened the World Governments Summit discussion with Mr Altman.

Mr Al Olama joked about the speculation that OpenAI was trying to convince investors and governments, including in the UAE, to raise trillions of dollars to help boost international chip-manufacturing capacity.

“I’d like to start by proposing an idea I had last night while falling asleep. I’m looking to raise $7 trillion, if you’re interested in joining,” he said.

Mr Altman, laughingly responded: “If you figure out how to do that, please let me know, I’m very curious."

Mr Al Olama added that “sometimes you read the news and you really feel how audacious people can be".

Mr Altman addressed the packed auditorium by video at the Madinat Jumeirah in Dubai.

His appearance came a day after Jensen Huang of chip maker Nvidia appeared at the summit.

Mr Huang, whose company has become one of the world's most valuable against the backdrop of the AI chip boom, pushed for countries to build their own, sovereign AI infrastructures.

Mr Altman visited the UAE in 2023, when he took part in an event hosted by Abu Dhabi’s Hub71, the government-backed start-up ecosystem.

At that appearance, Mr Altman spoke of his optimism that the Middle East and North Africa could play a central role in developing safe artificial intelligence, while also noting that the UAE “had been talking about AI since before it was cool”.

One year later, the AI boom has reshaped the technology industry and created hope – along with fear – over what the implementation of AI might do, and the redundancies it may cause.

At the World Governments Summit, Mr Altman was optimistic about the future and addressed a generation growing up with the technology, while acknowledging the need to be careful.

“You will be able to use these tools to do things that the people in the generation before you couldn't imagine,” he said.

“You'll have your entire career flooded with opportunity. The ground under us is shifting and the rules are changing, but the amount of value created and the ability of individuals to express their creative vision and will, it's going to be a great time.”

Updated: February 16, 2024, 5:32 AM