Sam Altman: Entrepreneurial Prodigy, Y Combinator, and OpenAI CEO – Behind the Tech with Kevin Scott

Check out the Behind the Tech with Kevin Scott Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • Consider taking a gap year to travel and pursue your interests without the pressure of a job
  • There are two ways to succeed in life: Either go deep in one field of knowledge or go extremely broad
  • “The interesting work is usually happening at the edges of what people are paying attention to. Those people aren’t the type of people to be so busy that they won’t respond to your email.” – Sam Altman
    • “If you send a thoughtful email, one that shows you’re serious and have done some work, to somebody working at the edge of a particular field on something interesting, they’ll probably meet you”
  • Being able to take feedback without allowing for your ego to be bruised is a valuable skill
  • Artificial intelligence will change the world (but we need a broader set of people thinking about the problems AI will bring)
  • AI may take our jobs, but the reality is we ALWAYS figure out something new to do
  • “If you’re doing anything interesting, you’re going to have a lot of haters. You may as well say the thing you actually believe.” – Sam Altman

Books Mentioned

  • Quantum Electrodynamics by Richard Feynman is the best science book ever written… I highly recommend it. It’s a short read, and there’s no math in it.”
  • Sam highly recommends Pandaemonium by Humphrey Jennings – the book contains many first-hand accounts about the Industrial Revolution
    • “Many of the things people say in that book could be said now about how people feel about AI: ‘There are no jobs, it’s going to take over, the machines are going to kill us, the future will be terrible, etc.'” – Sam Altman

Intro

  • Sam Altman (@sama) is the former president of Y Combinator (YC) and current CEO of OpenAI
    • Check out the Podcast Notes from Sam’s appearance on Tyler Cowen’s podcast
    • Also, check out his blog
  • Hosts:
    • Kevin Scott (@kevin_scott), Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft
    • Christina Warren (@film_girl), Senior Cloud Advocate at Microsoft
  • Christina comments on Sam – “He’s incredibly smart. He’s always three or four steps ahead of what the whole industry is doing.”
    • “Anytime I would get on the phone with him or chat in person, I’d walk away thinking, ‘This is the most impressive founder I’ve ever met.”

Sam’s Time at Stanford

  • Sam studied computer science at Stanford for his undergrad
  • What were a few of Sam’s favorite classes?
    • “The time I spent in studying history, or particular studying science, didn’t have an impact until 10 years later, but after that, those turned out to be the most valuable classes I took” – Sam Altman
    • Also – physics and creative writing
      • “There’s nothing that’s more fun than a great physics class. It’s just so intellectually stimulating.” – Sam Altman
        • Quantum Electrodynamics by Richard Feynman is the best science book ever written… I highly recommend it. It’s a short read, and there’s no math in it.”
  • How is creative writing useful to Sam in the present day?
    • “When I was at YC, certainly the highest leverage on time thing I could do was write startup advice… One of the most important jobs for whoever’s running YC is to be able to write reasonably well about startups.”
      • YC primarily exists because Paul Graham was so good at writing essays

Take a Year Off

  • Sam started his first startup, Loopt, when he was just 19-years-old (they made location-based software for cell phones)
    • He worked on the company for 8 years, took a year off, then took over YC
      • “One of the best decisions I made was to take an entire year off. It’s a thing I think a lot of people could do, but don’t.” Sam Altman
  • What did Sam do during his gap year?
    • He traveled around the world, staying in cheap hostels
    • He studied subjects he was interested in – “I read stacks and stacks of textbooks”
    • He talked to people that were working on problems he was interested in
    • He got really into nuclear energy
    • He raised a small venture fund
    • “I pursued a whole bunch of things that eventually became important investment areas for YC… They bloomed because I had this year to follow things I was interested in without the pressure of a job.” – Sam Altman

Tech Revolutions

  • A fascinating question to ponder: “What is the technological revolution that the current 7-12-year-olds of the world will grow up with?”
    • Sam speculates that it might be synthetic biology
    • Whatever the answer – these revolutionary pieces of tech always tend to be something that starts off looking like a toy (like computers)
  • Sam & Kevin grew up at the heart of the computer revolution
    • “It seems as if a lot of people who have gone on to start important companies, or be tech investors, were born in this relatively short window” – Sam Altman

How to Be Successful

  • There are two ways to succeed in life: Either go deep in one field of knowledge or stay extremely broad
    • Sam has always stuck to the latter category

Reach Out to the Experts

  • “I learn pretty well by reading, but I learn much better by talking to the experts” – Sam Altman
    • “The interesting work is usually happening at the edges of what people are paying attention to. Those people aren’t the type of people to be so busy that they won’t respond to your email.”
      • “If you send a thoughtful email, one that shows you’re serious and have done some work, to somebody working at the edge of a particular field on something interesting, they’ll probably meet you”

Ditch the Ego, Take the Feedback

  • “One of the advantages of starting a startup at a young age is you get really good at dealing with rejection” – Sam Altman
  • Being afraid of having your ego bruised makes it hard for others to provide you with feedback
    • “This is the thing I was horrific at towards the beginning of my career. If anyone told me I was doing anything other than a great job, I would completely shut down.” – Sam Altman
      • “The most important professional skill I learned, and one I wish I learned earlier, was being able to take hard feedback and not shut down when hearing it.”

Start a Hard Tech Startup

  • “Right now, not only do I think it’s possible to start a hard tech startup, I think it’s actually easier to start a hard startup than it is to start an easier startup. People are quite tired of enterprise software startup #1,422. If you’re doing something that makes people’s eyes gloss over, it’s hard to hire, it’s hard to get the press to care, and it’s hard to concentrate talent.” – Sam Altman
    • And if it’s a startup that people really care about, they’ll want to help
    • Hard tech = rockets, nuclear fusion, anything in the area of AGI, etc. (stuff where the risk is science-centered, as opposed to market/engineering-based
      • Examples: OpenAI, Tesla, SpaceX

The Hierarchy of Career Motivations

  • Level #1 – First, you care about money
  • Level #2 – Next, you care about power (being able to manage/control employees)
  • Level #3 – Then, you care about status (how people perceive you)
  • Level #4 – Then, you care about impact (wanting to create a company that has lasting effects)
  • Level #5 – Finally, you move to caring about self-actualization
  • A few points to conder:
    • Most people want to get the first few levels checked off as fast as they can
    • It’s hard to play at a higher level when you’re internally stuck at a lower one
      • For example – It’s difficult to convince yourself to start a startup that fights global warming when you’re not yet rich

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

  • “The curve, though it squiggles, if you zoom out enough, goes up and to the right. The curve of computers getting smarter does too. Now, how much further we have to go and when we’ll get there is very hard to say. What I can say with confidence is that maybe the current trends don’t get us all the way to general intelligence, but they’ll get us surprisingly far. They’re going to change the world in significant ways.” – Sam Altman
  • “I think there’s a reasonable chance that there’s something profound about consciousness that we don’t understand quite yet… But, if not, and physics works as we understand it, and everything is an emergent property in our brains of this vast computer we have, then I think that will be repeatable in silicon.” – Sam Altman
  • Who cares whether artificial general intelligence (AG) is 10, 30, or 50 years away?
    • It doesn’t matter – it’s the most important technological development in human history and 30 years is a blink of an eye on the evolutionary scale of human history
  • “The computers that we’re going to have in 5 years are going to be mind-blowing” – Sam Altman
  • At the end of the day, this explosion of data, computing power, and concentration of talent within the field of AI is going to lead to something interesting
  • We need more people thinking about the set of problems that AI will bring
    • “If we don’t get a broad set of people thinking about these issues soon, I think we’re unlikely to get to the right answers in time” – Sam Altman

Won’t AI take our jobs?

  • Sam predicts that the AI Revolution will be bigger than the Industrial Revolution, the Computer Revolution, and the Agricultural Revolution combined
  • Sam highly recommends Pandaemonium – the book contains many first-hand accounts about the Industrial Revolution
    • “Many of the things people say in that book could be said now about how people feel about AI: ‘There are no jobs, it’s going to take over, the machines are going to kill us, the future will be terrible, etc.'” Sam Altman
      • Sam adds: “The reality is we ALWAYS figure out something new to do”
      • The job turnover rate throughout history has been relatively constant: 50% of jobs disappear every 75 years, on average

What’s on the horizon that Sam is excited about within the field of AI?

  • Language models that allow us to interact with computers in a much more natural manner
  • Robots that can do “human dexterity levels of manipulation”
  • Computer games are going to get REALLY good

What’s the most fun non-work thing Sam’s done over the past few years?

  • Long meditation sittings
    • “Sitting has changed my perspective on the world. I think I’m a different person now. I’m so much more content, grateful, happy, and calm.” Sam Altman
    • Similar to Naval Ravikant, Sam will sit for 1.5-2 hours and just “do nothing”
      • He describes it: “Sitting and doing nothing. Not focused on a mantra, not focused on breath, but sitting in calmness and gratitude to the universe, with my eyes shut, for long periods of time.”

Additional Notes

  • Quotes from Sam to ponder:
    • “I think the education, in general, is not nearly ambitious enough”
    • “It’s tempting to learn too much from failure; it’s better to learn from success”
    • “The essential learning of my career so far has been: you should almost always scale things up more”
      • When something scales, it creates a ton of emergent properties
    • “If you’re doing anything interesting, you’re going to have a lot of haters. You may as well say the thing you actually believe.”
  • “If you really want to blow your mind, look up the delayed-choice quantum eraser experiment
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