50 Influential Jews: Sam Altman - No. 1

Artificial Intelligence is entering a golden age, says OpenAI CEO.

  (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Artificial Intelligence is rapidly changing the world, transforming it in ways we can’t fully comprehend. While AI was previously familiar to some, it became a household term in 2023, and no tool is more closely associated with it than ChatGPT.

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Developed by San Francisco-based OpenAI, the chatbot was initially released in November 2022. However, it gained widespread attention in early 2023, becoming the fastest-growing consumer application in history, with 100 million monthly users by January. It now averages more than 1.8 billion visits a month.

The question isn’t what ChatGPT can do – it’s what it can’t. From drafting a sermon on the weekly Torah portion to coming up with a recipe for an excellent summer cocktail, planning an itinerary for an urban getaway to writing a new Shakespearean sonnet – all of which I have done using the platform – ChatGPT is revolutionizing the way we gather and process information, generate content, and live our lives in countless ways.

Behind it all is Sam Altman. The 38-year-old co-founder and CEO of OpenAI was born to a Jewish family in Chicago and raised in St. Louis. He studied computer science at Stanford University but dropped out at 19 to co-found the location-based social networking app Loopt. In 2011, he became a partner at Y Combinator, a start-up accelerator that has helped launch thousands of companies, including Airbnb, Dropbox, and Reddit, becoming the company’s president in 2014. In 2020, Altman left Y Combinator to become the CEO of OpenAI, which he had helped launch with some of the biggest names in tech, including Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Microsoft, and Amazon.

Today, Altman is the face of OpenAI and, in many ways, of AI itself, traveling the world to discuss the dazzling potential of this cutting-edge technology while acknowledging the profound risks. “Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war,” reads a statement he signed alongside other industry leaders in May, and he has called for global regulation to prevent the technology from being used for nefarious purposes – or running amok. At the same time, he is convinced that AI’s benefits to humanity could be unlike anything imaginable. “You are about to enter the greatest golden age,” he recently told an audience in Seoul.

Notably, Altman is not the only Jewish member of OpenAI’s leadership team. The company’s co-founder, Ilya Sutskever, was born in Russia and made aliyah with his family at age five. He grew up in Jerusalem and attended Israel’s Open University before moving to Canada and studying at the University of Toronto and Stanford University. Today, Sutskever serves as OpenAI’s chief scientist.

The pair visited Israel in June, and Altman lauded the country’s flourishing tech scene, saying he believes the Jewish state will play a “huge role” in AI. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post later the same month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who had chatted with Altman during his visit – echoed his sentiment. “We’re moving into AI with full force,” Netanyahu told the Post. “Israel is receiving 20% of the world’s investments in AI start-ups, and more will come.”

Testifying before the US Congress earlier this year, Altman termed AI’s rapid emergence as being a “printing press moment.” If so, he may be a modern-day Gutenberg, ushering in an information revolution that humanity has never seen before.

“I’m a Midwestern Jew,” Altman recently told Time. “I think that fully explains my exact mental model – very optimistic and prepared for things to go super wrong at any point.”