Sam Altman, the former CEO of Y Combinator and, as of 2019, the co-founder and co-CEO of OpenAI, the company he famously co-founded with Elon Musk and numerous others in 2015 to develop artificial intelligence for the “benefit of humanity,” spent an hour with this editor late last week in a rare sit-down before a small audience.
The audience was interested in learning more about his ambitions for OpenAI, which has gained worldwide attention in the previous six weeks as a result of the publication of its ChatGPT language model, a chatbot that has particularly amazed and concerned educators. When it was made available to the general public earlier last year, OpenAI’s DALL-E technology, which enables users to create digital graphics by merely expressing what they envision, attracted only marginally less attention.
We spent the first half of our time together concentrating on some of Altman’s most ambitious investments as he is also an active investor, one whose highest return to date comes from the payments firm Stripe, he remarked during the event.
You may want to watch the 20-minute movie below to learn more about these, which include a firm that develops supersonic aircraft and another that wants to assist in the creation of children from human skin cells. (Altman also shares his opinions on Twitter under Musk’s leadership and explains why he is “not very interested” in cryptocurrencies or web 3. Altman shrugged and remarked, “I adore the web3 people’s spirit. But intuitively, I don’t understand why we need it.
Soon, we’ll include more of that more thorough conversation, including OpenAI. Here is an example from our discussion of one of Altman’s biggest investments, Helion Energy, a nuclear fusion business that, like OpenAI, is attempting to realize the long-awaited promise of plentiful energy. A modest editing process was used to make the extract longer and clearer.
Why is Sam Altman a big deal?
At this point, I try to just do things that interest me. One of the things I’ve come to know is that all of the businesses to which I believe I have contributed significantly are those to which I tend to daydream during my free time while hiking or doing other things, at which point I text the company’s founders to pitch them an idea. Every founder should have an investor who will keep them in mind while they are trekking. So I’ve made an effort to stick to the things I really love, which are usually things like hard technology that require a lot of resources, years of R&D, or dangerous research. But if it does, it does so effectively.
Helion Energy is one investment that’s very intriguing. Despite the fact that you have been funding this company since 2015, I think people were startled when it announced a $500 million round last year that included a $375 million check from you. Few people have the means to sign a $375 million cheque.
Or perhaps lots of people who would put their money into a hazardous fusion company.
Which investments have you made so far been the most profitable?
I’m talking about, most likely on a multiples basis, unquestionably on a multiples basis: Stripe. Additionally, it seemed much easier because I believe that was only my second investment overall. Additionally, valuations were different at this period, which was wonderful. I’ve been doing this for around 17 years, so there have undoubtedly been many really great ones. I’m also extremely grateful to have lived in Silicon Valley during that mystical period.
For me, Helion is more than just an investment. I spend a lot of time working on it in addition to OpenAI. I’m just so eager to see what happens there.
Nuclear fusion research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory made progress last month. The first fusion reaction in a laboratory setting that created more energy than it used was announced by its scientists using a method utilizing enormous lasers. What do you think of its strategy? It differs significantly from Helion’s (which is developing a fusion device that is supposedly long and narrow and will employ aluminum magnates to compress fuel before expanding it to generate electricity from it) and I’m curious what you make of it.
I’m overjoyed for them. I think the scientific finding is really cool. I don’t think it will be commercially relevant, as they have stated. And that’s what excites me, not getting fusion to operate in a lab, although that is also amazing, but creating a system that will function at an incredibly cheap cost.
If you take a look at prior energy transitions, a new form of energy can replace all others in a few decades if the costs can be brought down. Additionally, we need a system that allows us to produce enough energy that is dependable, both in terms of the machines’ ability to function and the absence of solar, wind, or other intermittent energy sources’ intermittency or necessity for storage. To replace all of the current generative capacity on Earth with fusion energy and to do it quickly, as well as to consider what it really means to build a factory that is capable of producing two of these machines per day for a decade, is a really hard but also really fun problem. If we can produce enough for Earth in, say, 10 years, I think that’s actually the hardest challenge that Helion faces.
I believe it’s fantastic that there is a fusion race, therefore I’m glad to see it. I’m also thrilled that solar energy and batteries are getting so affordable. But in my opinion, it will matter who can provide energy cheaply and in sufficient quantities.
Why is Helion’s strategy better than what numerous countries are attempting in Southern France?
Yes, I believe Iter will likely work, but as I mentioned earlier, I do not believe it will be of much economic significance. Additionally, they [themselves] believe it won’t matter commercially.
The fact that Helion is a straightforward device with a fair price and dimensions excite me so much. Other than the enormous [experimental machine being developed by these nations], there are many other interesting aspects of it, but one that stands out is the fact that charged particles, not heat, are produced in the reaction. The majority of other [alternatives] produce heat that powers a steam turbine, such a coal plant, a natural gas plant, or anything else. Helion creates charged particles that exert force against the magnet and cause a wire to conduct electricity. There is absolutely no heat cycle. As a result, it can be a system that is considerably simpler and more effective.
And although that is missed from the fusion debate as a whole, it is very excellent. Additionally, it implies that we don’t need to manage much radioactive material. We never have hazardous waste, let alone a hazardous system. Soon after it shuts off, you could touch it.
It is currently constructing a sizable facility. Has the thesis been established yet?
We’ll have additional information to post there soon.