“The revolution has launched”: OpenAI’s Sam Altman charts the promise and peril of AI at Toronto event

Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman discuss the potential and risks of AI at an Elevate event in Toronto.
Sam Altman has become the world’s most powerful optimist.

Sam Altman believes that artificial intelligence (AI) will build “a better world,” but there’s still a lot to figure out.

At a May 15 event hosted by Elevate at Toronto’s Design Exchange, the OpenAI co-founder and CEO kicked off the beginning of a five-week trip around the world. His stated mission: get out of the “Silicon Valley bubble” and speak with the communities that will both build and be impacted by AI.

“This should be a big moment for Toronto.”
– Sam Altman, OpenAI

In a fireside chat with Shopify co-founder and CEO Tobias Lütke, Altman expressed a great deal of optimism about the current pace of AI research and development, likening it to the discovery of fundamental physics. The OpenAI CEO stated that the current moment will one day be seen as “one of the most important periods of human discovery.”

At the same time, Altman was wary of the risks. Following an anecdote from Lütke of Shopify’s team “interviewing” ChatGPT in order to figure out what it can do, Altman pushed back, noting that anthropomorphizing the tech was “tempting,” but “we have to figure out a way to still have fun, but remind people that this is a tool and not a creature.”

“If we get this wrong, it’s very, very bad,” said Altman, in response to a question posed by BetaKit editor-in-chief Douglas Soltys about the level of responsibility he feels to mitigate those risks.

According to Altman, OpenAI’s most important work is focused on things like technical safety. The CEO argued that institutions need to take this tech seriously, and called for some form of global regulatory framework to protect against “the most serious downside cases.”

In the absence of that framework, or perhaps as a precondition to its development, Altman noted he believes that the only way to build this sort of technology is publicly in a way that elicits community testing and feedback.

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In response to a question from Lütke on how tech leaders could achieve the most optimistic outcome, OpenAI’s CEO responded: “The way we get to this awesome outcome is we unleash the creative power of the world.”

If the most optimistic outcome was the topic du jour, it might be because the pair spoke as though an AI future has already been decided, if not fully articulated. Lütke speculated that it might be the “end of the beginning” for software development, while Altman described the present moment as “the most exciting time to start a startup since the launch of iPhone App Store,” noting that an array of companies are being built on the foundation laid by GPT-4.

“Toronto, by the way, should be one of the hubs for this in the world,” Altman added. “This should be a big moment for Toronto.”

“The revolution has launched and people are going to figure out how to integrate this into many aspects of society to significantly improve what we do.”

With the revolution top of mind, Lütke closed out the event with a call to action for Canadians. “Canada has a culture that goes for bronze,” said Lütke, encouraging Canadian tech companies to go for gold when it comes to AI. “The world needs more Canada.”

The Shopify CEO highlighted that Toronto has helped drive the academic side of AI development, and asked entrepreneurs to act now in order to ensure that the city, and Canada more broadly, also drive the commercialization side of the equation.

“We need to be in this game,” said Lütke.

Feature image courtesy Elevate.

Josh Scott

Josh Scott

Josh Scott is a BetaKit reporter focused on telling in-depth Canadian tech stories and breaking news. His coverage is more complete than his moustache.

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