OpenAI’s Sam Altman reportedly compared firm to the Manhattan Project

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman once compared his firm’s controversial artificial intelligence ambitions to the Manhattan Project – the World War II-era US program to develop the world’s first nuclear weapon.

Altman, 37, whose firm is behind the development of ChatGPT, reportedly invoked the Manhattan project and the words of its leader, physicist Robert Oppenheimer, while discussing the positive and negative effects of AI technology during a 2019 dinner meeting with the New York Times.

Altman said the historic effort to build the atomic bomb was a “project on the scale of OpenAI — the level of ambition we aspire to,” the New York Times reported.

The meeting reportedly occurred days after OpenAI secured a $1 billion investment from Microsoft.

Sam Altman
Sam Altman is CEO of OpenAI.
AFP via Getty Images

“I try to be upfront,” he reportedly said said. “Am I doing something good? Or really bad?”

The tech entrepreneur reportedly touted the potential of so-called “artificial general intelligence” – or AI equal to the human brain – even as he acknowledged its potential to upend the job market, fuel disinformation on the internet and prompt other disastrous consequences.

During the meeting, Altman explained the rationale behind pursuing such controversial technology by paraphrasing Oppenheimer, who argued the advancements were inevitable.

“Technology happens because it is possible,” Altman said.

Representatives for OpenAI did not immediately return a request for comment.

Sam Altman
Sam Altman compared OpenAI’s ambitions to that of the effort to build the first nuclear weapon.
The Washington Post via Getty Images

Altman and Microsoft-backed OpenAI have faced unprecedented scrutiny in recent weeks due to the runaway success of ChatGPT. The chatbot has wowed the public with its lifelike responses to a variety of user prompts, even as it fuels rising concerns about AI’s destructive potential in society.

Last month, Elon Musk and more than 1,000 experts signed an open letter that urged a six-month pause in the development of advanced AI technology. The experts argued the systems could pose “profound risks to society and humanity” without proper oversight and developmental guardrails.

Risks posed by unrestrained AI include the spread of “propaganda and untruth,” job losses, the development of “nonhuman minds that might eventually outnumber, outsmart, obsolete and replace us,” and the risk of “loss of control of our civilization,” according to the experts.

“Therefore, we call on all AI labs to immediately pause for at least 6 months the training of AI systems more powerful than GPT-4,” the letter says. “This pause should be public and verifiable, and include all key actors.”

Robert Oppenheimer
Robert Oppenheimer led the Manhattan project.
Bettmann Archive

ChatGPT has wowed the public with its advanced responses.
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Altman originally started OpenAI with tech moguls including Musk as a nonprofit — in part due to concerns that the drive for profit would fuel reckless development. Musk left OpenAI in 2018.

Altman, who also has invested in startups trying to develop clean nuclear energy and extend human lifespans, has no direct financial stake in OpenAI he told the Wall Street Journal last week.

“If you’re making nuclear fusion, it’s all upside. It’s just good,” Altman told the outlet. “If you’re making AI, it is potentially very good, potentially very terrible.” 

Hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman was one of the main dissenters to the idea of a pause.

Like Altman, Ackman compared the development of AI to the Manhattan Project – and warned that any delay in development would grant an advantage to US adversaries around the world.

“Shutting down AI development for six months gives the bad guys six more months to catch up,” Ackman tweeted last week. “Our enemies are working hard to develop their own @OpenAI. It would have been a mistake to delay the Manhattan Project and let the Nazis catch up. I don’t think we have a choice.”

OpenAI is one of countless firms racing to make advancements in the burgeoning AI sector. Microsoft rival Google recently released its own AI chatbot, dubbed Bard, to mixed reviews.

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𝗖𝗿𝗲𝗱𝗶𝘁𝘀, 𝗖𝗼𝗽𝘆𝗿𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁 & 𝗖𝗼𝘂𝗿𝘁𝗲𝘀𝘆:
𝗙𝗼𝗿 𝗮𝗻𝘆 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗽𝗹𝗮𝗶𝗻𝘁𝘀 𝗿𝗲𝗴𝗮𝗿𝗱𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗗𝗠𝗖𝗔,
𝗣𝗹𝗲𝗮𝘀𝗲 𝘀𝗲𝗻𝗱 𝘂𝘀 𝗮𝗻 𝗲𝗺𝗮𝗶𝗹 𝗮𝘁

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