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Sam Altman launched a new project this week to distinguish humans from increasingly intelligent robots, underscoring the OpenAI chief’s belief that breakthroughs in artificial intelligence will soon create new challenges for society — and his belief that he can solve them.
The launch of eye-scanning Worldcoin cryptocurrency project is the latest in a series of advancements in companies backed or led by Altman. This includes OpenAI releasing ChatGPT in November last year and announcing this month that Oklo, a nuclear fission startup chaired by Altman, is to go public with a deal valuing the company at $850 million.
“These are independent pieces of a specific vision of the future that I believe in,” Altman said in an interview with the Financial Times. “But they all do their own things and they all work independently.”
Collectively, Altman’s projects could reshape society, and their success would place him at the heart of a powerful corporate network. Those efforts propelled the 38-year-old to global prominence while putting him on a collision course with regulators.
Altman insisted he had no intention of “disintermediating” governments, but suggested the public sector had “a lack of will” to lead innovation.
“People periodically ask me, ‘Don’t you think this should be done by the government? Isn’t it horrible that you’re doing this as a private tech company? “, Did he declare. “Why don’t you ask the government why they don’t do these things, isn’t that the most awful part?”
OpenAI, backed by Microsoft, is working to develop general artificial intelligence — advanced computer systems capable of performing at or above the level of humans in a range of tasks, a goal that Altman says could be achieved within a decade.
Plans for Worldcoin include creating a global identification system by scanning users’ eyeballs to tell them apart from robots and providing the infrastructure to distribute a range of financial and welfare services, including Universal Basic Income.
Altman has also invested in Retro Biosciences, a start-up aimed at extending human life, and Neuralink, a company co-founded by Elon Musk that is developing a computer that can be implanted in the brain.
He bristled at the idea that he was maneuvering to be at the center of a universe dominated by AI or that he is acting for financial reward.
Altman said he has no direct stake in OpenAI and only an “immaterial” stake in the company through Y Combinator, the start-up incubator he ran from 2014 to 2019. He is independent and has stakes in some of Silicon Valley’s most successful start-ups, including payments company Stripe and social network Reddit.
In a 2021 article titled “Moore’s Law for Everything”, Altman argued that the advent of AGI would create enormous wealth by reducing the cost of labor to next to nothing and pushing the boundaries of science by making novel discoveries. This could facilitate breakthroughs for other companies he has invested in, such as Oklo and Helion, which works on nuclear fusion, or Neuralink.
Altman said he’s been playing such a big role in pushing new technologies forward in part because governments have been reluctant to lead the latest wave of innovation.
Brandishing part of a Concorde he keeps in his office, Altman said the government’s capacity for innovation has diminished since the UK and France collaborated to create the supersonic aircraft and the US launched the Apollo space missions.
“In a well-functioning society, governments would do the AGI project and [nuclear] fusion and a whole bunch of things — and yet it’s not.
“So either we sit back and watch the gradual decline in state capability and say ‘this is a bummer’ and we’re just not going to make any more technical progress . . . or you do the next best thing and just build great companies,” he said.
Altman, who describes himself as “an extremely, extremely proud American citizen,” has spent increasing amounts of time in Washington this year, making his point to Congress and the White House as he seeks to build trust and explain the ramifications of AGI.
“After the response to ChatGPT and people taking AGI seriously, we absolutely owed them the time to answer all their questions,” he said.
Last week, OpenAI and other companies in the space agreed to let their systems be tested externally before launching to the public, in a move the White House said would “help move toward safe, secure, and transparent development of AI technology.”
Earlier this month, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission told OpenAI he was investigating whether people have been harmed by ChatGPT’s creation of false information about them, as well as whether the company has engaged in “unfair or deceptive” privacy and data security practices.
OpenAI has also clashed with EU regulators, who are writing one of the most comprehensive sets of rules currently available for the technology. In May this year, Altman appeared to fire a warning shot at Brussels, suggesting that his company could withdraw its services from the EU if the regulations were too strict.
“We will try to comply, but if we cannot comply, we will cease operations,” warned Altman, who later backed off from comment.
Worldcoin has also clashed with US regulators. The company chose not to issue tokens in the United States amid a crackdown on digital assets in the country, led by the Securities and Exchange Commission. In recent months, the financial market watchdog has taken enforcement action against the biggest names in crypto, including Coinbase, the Nasdaq-listed exchange, and Binance, the world’s largest exchange.
“It’s really sad,” Altman said. “Of course, we will follow the law. Hopefully there will be more clarity in the US over time and a friendlier environment, but that’s what we’re going to have to do for now.