On a Monday morning in April, Sam Altman sat inside OpenAI’s San Francisco headquarters, telling me about a dangerous artificial intelligence that his company had built but would never release. His employees, he later said, often lose sleep worrying about the AIs they might one day release without fully appreciating their dangers. With his heel perched on the edge of his swivel chair, he looked relaxed. The powerful AI that his company had released in November had captured the world’s imagination like nothing in tech’s recent history. There was grousing in some quarters about the things ChatGPT could not yet do well, and in others about the future it may portend, but Altman wasn’t sweating it; this was, for him, a moment of triumph.
In small doses, Altman’s large blue eyes emit a beam of earnest intellectual attention, and he seems to understand that, in large doses, their intensity might unsettle. In this case, he was willing to chance it: He wanted me to know that whatever AI’s ultimate risks turn out to be, he has zero regrets about letting ChatGPT loose into the world. To the contrary, he believes it was a great public service.
“We could have gone off and just built this in our building here for five more years,” he said, “and we would have had something jaw-dropping.” But the public wouldn’t have been able to prepare for the shock waves that followed, an outcome that he finds “deeply unpleasant to imagine.” Altman believes that people need time to reckon with the idea that we may soon share Earth with a powerful new intelligence, before it remakes everything from work to human relationships. ChatGPT was a way of serving notice.
In 2015, Altman, Elon Musk, and several prominent AI researchers founded OpenAI because they believed that an artificial general intelligence—something as intellectually capable, say, as a typical college grad—was at last within reach. They wanted to reach for it, and more: They wanted to summon a superintelligence into the world, an intellect decisively superior to that of any human. And whereas a big tech company might recklessly rush to get there first, for its own ends, they wanted to do it safely, “to benefit humanity as a whole.” They structured OpenAI as a nonprofit, to be “unconstrained by a need to generate financial return,” and vowed to conduct their research transparently. There would be no retreat to a top-secret lab in the New Mexico desert. [Continue reading…]