ChatGPT could 'break' capitalism if it's successful, Sam Altman says

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Since its November launch, ChatGPT has become wildly popular worldwide. It hit one million users in as little as five days and this week was declared the fastest-growing app in history, growing more quickly than social media mainstays including Instagram and TikTok.

OpenAI, the company that created the advanced chatbot, has become similarly high-profile, attracting a $10 billion investment from Microsoft last month that put it on track for a $29 billion valuation. With the sky seemingly the limit for ChatGPT and its potential applications, Sam Altman, the Stanford dropout who co-founded OpenAI in 2015, says the advanced artificial general intelligence (AGI) ChatGPT eventually aspires to be is still in its infancy. And if things go the right way for OpenAI, it could even upend the economic model Altman was rebelling against when he first started the company.

“I think that if AGI really truly fully happens, I can imagine all these ways that it breaks capitalism,” Altman said in an interview with Forbes published Friday. 

When Altman co-founded OpenAI, he and a group of early investors including Elon Musk and Peter Thiel set out to counter Google’s growing hegemony in the artificial intelligence space. Google had just completed its $500 million acquisition of DeepMind, the London-based A.I. startup that two years ago achieved a major breakthrough by cataloging almost every known protein in the human body.

Opposing the notion that a single tech giant could monopolize A.I. research for years to come, Altman says that OpenAI’s mission was the opposite: Democratize artificial intelligence and distribute its benefits as evenly as possible by continuously sharing with the world the company’s work, research, and even its patents.

“Our goal is to advance digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole, unconstrained by a need to generate financial return. Since our research is free from financial obligations, we can better focus on a positive human impact,” the company announced in a 2015 statement at launch.

When Microsoft confirmed it was extending its partnership with OpenAI last month, CEO Satya Nadella said in a statement that the two companies share an ambition to “democratize A.I. as a new technology platform.”

But skeptics can’t help but notice OpenAI is beginning to behave a lot less anti-capitalist than it used to now that its financial fate is intertwined with Microsoft, which is virtually in charge of the A.I. startup until OpenAI is able to pay back the tech giant’s initial investment plus interest. The internal conflict over OpenAI’s identity in the months and years to come is central to Fortune magazine’s latest cover story by Jeremy Kahn with reporting by Michal Lev-Ram and Jessica Mathews. Khan spoke with several former employees at OpenAI who left the company because of “cultural and strategic shifts,” including a reduced emphasis on democratizing A.I.

OpenAI announced this week it would trial a monthly subscription plan for ChatGPT, while Altman wrote on Twitter in December that he would “have to monetize it somehow at some point.”

In his interview with Forbes, Altman said he still believes OpenAI can balance between its goal of democratization and its new money-making interests. “I think capitalism is awesome. I love capitalism,” he said, adding that while he sees capitalism as the best economic model out of a bad bunch, he still hopes “we find a way better one.”

He reiterated the idea that no single company should own artificial intelligence and hoard its benefits, and added that he is doing everything he can for OpenAI to avoid becoming that.

“We’ve tried to design a structure that is, as far as I know, unlike any other corporate structure out there,” he said. “If we really, truly get AGI and it breaks, we’ll need something different [in company structure].”

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