A glimpse of the future as Sam Altman sees it • TechCrunch
At the end of last week, in a rare meeting in front of a small audience, this editor spent an hour with Sam Altman, the former president of Y Combinator and, since 2019, the CEO of OpenAI, the company he co-founded with Elon Musk. and many others in 2015 to develop artificial intelligence for the “benefit of humanity”.
The crowd wanted to know more about his plans for OpenAI, which has taken the world by storm over the past six weeks due to the public release of its ChatGPT language model, a chatbot that has dazzled and alarmed educators and others. . (OpenAI’s DALL-E technology, which allows users to create digital images by simply describing what they envision, generated only slightly less buzz when it was first released to the public. ‘last year.)
But since Altman is also an active investor — whose biggest return to date has come from payments startup Stripe, he said at the event — we spent the first half of our time together at focus on some of its most ambitious investments.
For more on these, including a supersonic aircraft company and a startup that aims to help create babies from human skin cells, you can watch the 20-minute video below. You’ll also hear Altman’s thoughts on Twitter under Elon Musk, and why he’s “not very into” crypto or web3. (“I love the web3 people spirit,” Altman said with a shrug. “But I don’t intuitively understand why we need it.)
We’ll be featuring more of our fuller conversation soon. In the meantime, below is an excerpt from our discussion of one of Altman’s biggest bets: a nuclear fusion company called Helion Energy that, like OpenAI, aims to transform a long-elusive promise – that of a abundant energy – actually. The excerpt has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What makes a deal with Sam Altman?
I try to do things that interest me at this point. One of the things that I’ve realized is that all the businesses that I think I’ve added a lot of value to are the ones that I kind of like to think about in my spare time on a hike or whatever and then send an SMS to the founders and say, ‘Hey, I have this idea for you.’ Every founder deserves an investor who will think of them on their journey. And so I tried to stick with what I really like, which tends to be hard tech, [involving] years of R&D, [is] capital-intensive or is somehow risky research. But if it works, it really works.
A particularly interesting investment is Helion Energy. You’ve been funding this company since 2015, but when it announced a $500 million seed round last year, including a $375 million check from you, I think people were surprised. Not many people can write a check for $375 million.
Or, like, a lot of people who would like [invest it] in a risky merger society.
What have been your most successful investments to date?
I mean, probably on a multiple basis, definitely on a multiple basis: Stripe. I also think it was, like, my second investment, so it felt a lot easier. It was also a time when assessments were different; It was great. But, you know, I’ve been doing this for about 17 years, so there’s been a lot of really good ones, and I’m super grateful to have been in Silicon Valley at such a magical time.
Helion is more than an investment for me. This is the other thing next to OpenAI that I spend a lot of time on. I’m just super excited about what’s going to happen there.
The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory made a breakthrough in nuclear fusion last month. (Using an approach involving giant lasers, its scientists announced the first fusion reaction in a laboratory environment that produced more energy than was used to start the reaction.) I wonder what you think of his approach, which is very different from Helion’s (which builds a fusion machine that would be long and narrow and will use aluminum tycoons to compress the fuel and then expand it to extract electricity).
I’m super happy for them. I think that’s a very cool scientific result. As they said themselves, I don’t think it will be commercially relevant. And that’s what excites me – not to make fusion work in a lab, although that’s cool too, but to build a system that will work at a very low cost.
If you look at previous energy transitions, if you can reduce the costs of a new form of energy, it can take over everything else within decades. And then also a system where we can create enough power and enough reliable power, both in terms of machines that don’t break, and also don’t have the intermittency or the need for storage of solar or wind power or something like that. If we can create enough for Earth in about 10 years – and I think that’s actually the toughest challenge Helion faces as we sketch out what it takes operationally to do that, to replace all current generative capacity on Earth with fusion and to do it real quick and think about what it really means to build a factory that can produce two of these machines a day for a decade – it’s really hard, but it’s also a super fun problem.
So I’m very happy that there is a fusion race, I think it’s great. I’m also very happy that solar power and batteries are getting so cheap. But I think what will matter is who can provide the cheapest and sufficient energy.
Why is Helion’s approach superior to that which dozens of nations are working on in the south of France?
Yeah, well, that thing, Iter, I think it’ll probably work, but for what I was saying earlier, I think it won’t be commercially relevant. They too [themselves] think it won’t be commercially relevant.
What is so exciting to me about Helion is that it is a simple machine at an affordable cost and a reasonable size. There are a bunch of different elements other than the giant [experimental machine being developed by these nations], but the really cool one is that what comes out of the reaction is charged particles, not heat. Almost all others [alternatives], such as a coal or natural gas or other power plant, produces heat which drives a steam turbine. Helion makes charged particles that repel the magnet and drive an electric current through a wire. There is no heat cycle at all. And so it can be a much simpler, much more efficient system.
I think we missed the whole merger discussion, but [is] really great. It also means that we don’t have to deal with a lot of nuclear material. We never have hazardous waste or even a hazardous system. You could touch it fairly soon after it turns off.
He’s building a big facility right now. Has he already proven his thesis?
We’ll have more to share there shortly. . .
My general approach is that if there is an area that seems really important to me, like energy, for example, I tried to find the best fusion and the best fission company possible. They are competitive in the sense that they are both trying to produce cheap energy, but we desperately need more cheap energy. It’s a huge market; I think they can both work.