Sam Altman can see the future, and what he sees — far along the horizon, past the massive profits for the many thousands of startups in which he has a hand as president of Y Combinator — is an apocalypse caused by artificial intelligence.
Altman took over the position as head of the best-known tech incubator in 2014 from Paul Graham and Jessica Livingston. If you know all about him already, congratulations on your job in venture capital, and if you're just learning about him this week, congratulations on being up to date on your New Yorker subscription. The magazine features a lengthy profile of Altman in its October 10 issue, in which Altman appears as a slightly stilted savant.
A blogger recently asked Altman, “How has having Asperger’s helped and hurt you?” Altman told me, “I was, like, ‘Fuck you, I don’t have Asperger’s!’ But then I thought, I can see why he thinks I do. I sit in weird ways”—he folds up like a busted umbrella—“I have narrow interests in technology, I have no patience for things I’m not interested in: parties, most people. When someone examines a photo and says, ‘Oh, he’s feeling this and this and this,’ all these subtle emotions, I look on with alien intrigue.”
The New Yorker got ahold of Altman's mother (not fair, mom!) who shares further that “Sam does keep an awful lot tied up inside. He’ll call and say he has a headache—and he’ll have Googled it, so there’s some cyber-chondria in there, too. I have to reassure him that he doesn’t have meningitis or lymphoma, that it’s just stress.”
In taking the long view on matters, Altman sometimes seems to overlook people — and the present moment for us all — entirely. The profile explains, for instance, a belief (let us not call it a paranoia) of Altman's that he shares with Elon Musk, the Tesla CEO. Together they run the nonprofit OpenAI, whose vague mission is to prevent the artificial intelligence they're creating in their other work from destroying the world entirely. This notion of their power as so great and their responsibility so vast is a very nice backhanded compliment for them to give themselves, but never mind that.
"I like racing cars,” Altman said. “I have five, including two McLarens and an old Tesla. I like flying rented planes all over California. Oh, and one odd one—I prep for survival.” Seeing their bewilderment, he explained, “My problem is that when my friends get drunk they talk about the ways the world will end. After a Dutch lab modified the H5N1 bird-flu virus, five years ago, making it super contagious, the chance of a lethal synthetic virus being released in the next twenty years became, well, nonzero. The other most popular scenarios would be A.I. that attacks us and nations fighting with nukes over scarce resources.” The Shypmates looked grave. “I try not to think about it too much,” Altman said. “But I have guns, gold, potassium iodide, antibiotics, batteries, water, gas masks from the Israeli Defense Force, and a big patch of land in Big Sur I can fly to.”
Oh, there's also another character in this escape plan: media hero and Trump apologist Peter Thiel. "If the pandemic does come, Altman’s backup plan is to fly with his friend Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist, to Thiel’s house in New Zealand." I wouldn't worry about this possibility too much, though, given that we'll all be mercifully dead.