Gray Matters

Sam Altman: The Tech Revolution Was Just a ‘Warm Up’ For What’s Next

Sam Altman is known for seeing into the future. For years he led Y Combinator — one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent incubators. He’s invested in companies like Airbnb, Dropbox, and Reddit.

When he makes a prediction, you listen. Sam spoke to Laurie Segall about why he thinks the next ten years in tech could be even more disruptive than the last…

Read an edited transcript below, or listen to the full interview on the First Contact podcast.

We are on the brink of being the first species ever to design our own descendants.

Sam Altman: I think we’re at this moment where the world is pretty great by a lot of metrics. If you just look at the fall of extreme poverty, or regular poverty, globally in the last 30 years, we should all be celebrating. And if you look at what’s available, there’s a lot that we should be really happy about.

And we’re not. And I think technology has a lot of blame there. But it’s not just the actions of the companies. It’s that in the last 13 years, the world has fundamentally transformed and society hasn’t caught up. And that happens when technological revolutions happen. I assume it would have happened if we had been around for the previous ones. This is just the one that we get to live through.

…Anyway, as hard as all these issues are, I think what you’ve just been through is a small warm up for what we’re now on the brink of. And we didn’t even get it right on the warm up. And-

Laurie Segall: …That, that’s not comforting, right?

Sam Altman: No. And some-

Laurie Segall: Especially for someone who has an insane instinct as to companies that are going to be correct. That warning doesn’t leave me with, you know, the warm and fuzzies.

Sam Altman: Well, it shouldn’t! I don’t think it does a service for someone like me to say, “Oh, you know, there’s no more technological change on the horizon.” We have this big transition…We are on the brink of being the first species ever to design our own descendants. Maybe we do it by something like Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Maybe we do it by editing the genome with Crispr. Maybe we do it by creating artificial digital intelligence. This is not a small thing. This is not like most things that people really get stressed about…This is one that’s going to be in the history books.

Laurie Segall: I agree with you that these are the things that are coming down the pipeline.

Sam Altman: Yeah.

Laurie Segall: This is the long term view. The thing I worry about, having covered this for the last decade… So let’s go with Elon Musk for an example. And you’re close with Elon. You know him. When we’re thinking about Neuralink, right?…You’re going to have a chip implanted in your brain. It’s going to make us smarter. This is going to be amazing. Are we thinking already about the unintended consequences? Will your thoughts be hacked? Will we create a superhuman species?…I don’t think people are talking about that stuff as the technology is being built. Are they?

Sam Altman: No. I think this is a huge deal. And I think one thing that happened is, there is this relationship now between tech and the media, which I would describe as, uh-

Laurie Segall: Increasingly contentious?

Sam Altman: …Uh, I was going to just say like not that fun to be on the tech side of. And one way to respond to that is people just say, “Well, you know, I’m not going to keep talking to the media.” And this means the conversation drops out of the sort of public view. You know, I think it’s personally the wrong approach. But I have sympathy for why people feel like “I can’t get fair treatment of complex issues”. It’s certainly been frustrating for me at OpenAI. No matter how careful we try to not hype a result of ours, or how we try to talk about something, when the story runs, it always runs with just killer robots [as the image attached].