Who is Sam Altman? From college dropout to creator of OpenAI's chatbot phenomenon ChatGPT

Who is Sam Altman? From college dropout to creator of OpenAI's chatbot phenomenon ChatGPT

His name is appearing in headlines around the world for his dramatic dismissal from the company he founded, OpenAI.

It's perhaps due to the fact that in the past year, Sam Altman, the father of ChatGPT, has become the hottest face in the world of artificial intelligence, or AI.

But his notoriety is nothing new: he has been in Silicon Valley's spotlight for nearly two decades already.

Altman entered the tech world as a fresh college dropout in 2005. In the same vein as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, the then twenty-year-old man quit his Stanford University degree in computer science to start a company that allowed users to share their geolocation called Loopt.

With no academic commitments and the future of Loopt in his hands, Altman joined the Y Combinator (YC) - a major accelerator of technology start-ups that also helped launch the likes of Airbnb, Reddit, Dropbox and Coinbase - which helped launch him to stardom.

Looptd managed to raise over $30 million (€28 million) in venture capital before being widely adopted by the likes of Apple and Blackberry. After seven years, Loopt failed to thrive, and American financial technology and bank holding company, Green Dot Corporation, bought the venture out for over €40 million.

San Francisco-based OpenAI said in a statement late Tuesday: “We have reached an agreement in principle for Sam Altman to return to OpenAI as CEO with a new initial board" made of former Salesforce co-CEO Bret Taylor, former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo.

From flop to the top

Despite its flop, Loopt allowed Altman to make a name for himself in Silicon Valley. And two years later, he was picked as the successor of Y Combinator president, American computer scientist Paul Graham.

Three years later, Altman came together with Tesla boss Elon Musk, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and other sponsors in 2015 to co-found OpenAI, an artificial intelligence (AI) research and deployment company that aimed to promote and develop "friendly AI in a way that benefits all humanity".

In 2016, Altman first announced that OpenAI was building a General Artificial Intelligence (GAI) - an AI that matches human intellect - known as GPT-1.

On January 5, 2021, OpenAI released DALL-E, an AI capable of generating an image based on a user's description.

'An oil painting by Matisse of a humanoid robot playing chess' created by DALL·E
'An oil painting by Matisse of a humanoid robot playing chess' created by DALL·E - DALL·E by OpenAI

In November 2022, OpenAI launched - to the surprise of its own employees - ChatGPT, one of the most advanced AI models to date: a chatbot capable of generating text on demand using advanced AI, scenarios, lyrics, stories, and presentations.

The launch of ChatGPT - which has both fascinated and terrified millions - has quickly brought Altman to the fore of the public eye. It has also prompted calls for him to meet with politicians and lawmakers to work on AI safety and alignment work.

The future of AI

Altman has said the latest and most advanced versions of ChatGPT will be rolled out very gradually to get people, institutions, and policymakers familiar with it, "thinking about the implications, feeling the technology, getting a sense for what it can do and can't do," he said.

He thinks that the revolution sparked by "artificial general intelligence" (AGI) is "unstoppable".

In an essay titled 'Moore’s Law for Everything,' Altman wrote that the technological progress that AGI will bring in the next 100 years "will be far larger than all we’ve made since we first controlled fire and invented the wheel".

Fired by OpenAI, hired by Microsoft

In November 2023, the AI world was shocked as Altman was forced out by the board at OpenAI, which claimed he was "not consistently candid in his communications" with the board of directors, which lost confidence in his ability to lead OpenAI.

In the days that followed, more than 700 out of 770 OpenAI employees had signed a letter threatening to quit the company should he not be reinstated, according to the Financial Times citing people familiar with the matter.

Altman was swiftly hired by Microsoft, which had already invested billions in OpenAI, to lead a "new advanced AI research team".

The AI oracle is also known for his altruistic endeavours. The 38-year-old has shown his support for a universal basic income, a policy that would provide a guaranteed minimum income to all citizens, and has criticised income inequality in the tech industry.