Sam Altman and Y-Combinator

Tad Friend at The New Yorker has just published a great snapshot of Sam Altman’s leadership at Y Combinator. It is worth a read for anyone interested in topics like:

  • technology and human progress
  • generating the next phase of economic growth
  • A.I. and transhumanism
  • crowd-funding a smart city
  • etc.

The following excerpts give a hint at the full contents of the article.

On Altman’s ruthless enthusiasm for big, future-transforming ideas:

“Altman is rapidly building out an economy within Silicon Valley that seems intended to essentially supplant Silicon Valley—a guild of hyper-capitalist entrepreneurs who will help one another fix the broken world. Everyone has cautioned him against it.”

On A.I., human limitations, and technological possibilities (embracing the Singularity?):

“On  a daylong hike with friends north of San Francisco, Altman relinquished the notion that human beings are singular. As the group discussed advances in artificial intelligence, Altman recognized, he told me, that “there’s absolutely no reason to believe that in about thirteen years we won’t have hardware capable of replicating my brain. Yes, certain things still feel particularly human—creativity, flashes of inspiration from nowhere, the ability to feel happy and sad at the same time—but computers will have their own desires and goal systems. When I realized that intelligence can be simulated, I let the idea of our uniqueness go, and it wasn’t as traumatic as I thought.” He stared off. “There are certain advantages to being a machine. We humans are limited by our input-output rate—we learn only two bits a second, so a ton is lost. To a machine, we must seem like slowed-down whale songs.”

On the idea of a crowd-funded smart city:

“Recently, YC began planning a pilot project to test the feasibility of building its own experimental city. It would lie somewhere in America, or perhaps abroad, and would be optimized for technological solutions: it might, for instance, permit only self-driving cars. “It could be a college town built out of YC, the university of the future,” Altman said. “A hundred thousand acres, fifty to a hundred thousand residents. We crowdfund the infrastructure and establish a new and affordable way of living around concepts like ‘No one can ever make money off of real estate.’ ”

On the preference for action over caution:

“For Altman, the best way to discover which future was in store was to make it. One of the first things he did at OpenAI was to paint a quotation from Admiral Hyman Rickover on its conference-room wall. “The great end of life is not knowledge, but action,” Rickover said. “I believe it is the duty of each of us to act as if the fate of the world depended on him. . . . We must live for the future, not for our own comfort or success.” Altman recounted all the obstacles Rickover overcame to build America’s nuclear-armed Navy. “Incredible!” he said. But, after a considering pause, he added, “At the end of his life, when he may have been somewhat senile, he did also say that it should all be sunk to the bottom of the ocean. There’s something worth thinking about in there.

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