Sam Altman: The Next Big Cult Hero in Tech

Fanaticism has been, for much of American history, reserved for institutions like sports teams and universities where allegiances run so deep they can (and often have) become a central part of one’s identity. But an interesting shift occurred around the turn of the century where individuals have come to command the same fervent admiration.

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This happened in politics – that’s a topic for a different publication – and also in business: most prominently with Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. If you connect the dots between what drove the love of those tech leaders and recent events, it is clear the new cult hero in tech is Sam Altman.

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Altman clinched this position in late November after he was abruptly terminated from his position as the chief executive of OpenAI, the company he helped found in 2015.

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As has been covered extensively, the OpenAI board unexpectedly asked Altman to join a Google Meet link, at which point they told him he would be fired from OpenAI over what has been described as a “breakdown in communication.”

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Within two days, 90% of OpenAI employees had signed an open letter to the board threatening to leave OpenAI for Microsoft if they did not reinstate Altman as CEO. This was believed to be such a credible threat that Microsoft spent the weekend loading office equipment and computers into a floor at LinkedIn’s San Francisco office, preparing for their arrival.

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Ultimately, Altman returned to his job as CEO, and OpenAI shuffled their board of directors.

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And while it was a jarring sequence of events in short order, the most shocking part wasn’t his firing and re-hiring, the board re-alignment, or the fact that 90% of employees threatened to quit over the events: the biggest surprise was the broader tech industry’s reaction to Altman’s ouster.

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People who had no relationship with OpenAI or Altman came rushing to his full-throated defense. Opinion pieces were penned. Hundreds of hours of podcasts were recorded. Social media feeds were full of people who had his back despite the fact they had never so much as heard Altman’s voice.

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All of this activity went well beyond a reaction to someone getting a raw deal, and it felt familiar: like the kind of debate and memes and discourse you see play out about Steve Jobs’ role at Apple or about any of the various things Elon Musk is involved in. The response crossed into fanaticism.

The Key Ingredients of a Tech Cult Hero

A (perhaps unexpected) benefit of Altman’s firing and re-hiring is that it gave him one of the three core ingredients for the making of a tech cult hero: resilience. People – Americans especially – love a comeback story, and Altman’s was unlike any we had seen before, especially with regard to how quickly it played out.

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When Jobs was fired from Apple as a result of corporate politics, it took twelve years before he returned to the helm – true to the speed with which things play out in 2024, Altman’s journey took three days.

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Despite the brevity of his absence, it was intense, and the stakes were high, much like the (many) times Elon took Tesla to the brink of extinction before prevailing en route to becoming the wealthiest person in the world.

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All three of these individuals also offer compelling visions accompanied by convincing breakthroughs. For Jobs, it was (initially) making computers so accessible and easy to use, that you’d welcome them in your home. For Musk, it was the electric car.

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And with Sam Altman, it’s clear his moonshot vision – an effort that he has proved capable of leading – is artificial intelligence.

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Talk is cheap, and many have been drawn in by charismatic visionary types before, but in each of these cases, these people executed. That’s a big box to check off.

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More than anything, the focus and tenacity Jobs and Musk demonstrated throughout their careers, across multiple efforts and companies, is the kind of conviction that people admire.

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It’s easy to look at Musk and wonder why he maintains (a material level of) involvement in Tesla, SpaceX, Boring Company, SolarCity, and others, the answer is meaningful: these are the companies and components necessary to realize Musk’s ultimate vision, for humans to become an extra-planetary species.

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(And interestingly, the biggest thing hurting the approval rating of Elon Musk, at the moment, is attached to the lack of focus he’s demonstrating with his involvement in Twitter. His operation of Twitter won’t help people get to Mars.)

Sam Altman Has Demonstrated Resilience and Has Vision and Focus

Like Musk’s (previously singular) focus on helping humans become an extra-planetary species, Altman’s focus is clear: artificial intelligence. He understands, as he described it in one interview, “the arc of technology and societal change on a long time horizon.” This has pushed Altman into new, related efforts. Among them:

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  • Recognizing the need for a stronger energy grid to fully realize his vision for the future of technology, Altman is the Chairman of the Board at Oklo, an advanced nuclear fission microreactor startup. As Sam Altman told CNBC, “I think there’s urgent demand for tons and tons of cheap, safe, clean energy at scale.”

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  • In recognition of a similar issue, Altman has pushed for a level of investment in semiconductors (and generally, compute power) to a previously-unheard of level. Earlier this month, it was revealed Altman has sought up to $7 trillion in investment to reshape the semiconductor industry.

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  • Building the roads, bridges, and tunnels of artificial intelligence isn’t satisfactory for Altman, as he is rumored to be collaborating with Apple’s former designer Jony Ive on building a hardware AI device that will (presumably) change the form of the way users currently experience artificial intelligence.

What Does This Mean for Sam Altman?

In addition to the personal implications of becoming a business celebrity, Altman will need to manage the bittersweet impact of this increased attention on his professional life.

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His positioning has allowed (and will continue to allow) him to take shots like the one he took when floating a $7 trillion ask for investment in semiconductors. While most would be laughed off the stage, people leaned in and listened, truly considering a proposition previously unthinkable.

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Similarly, he’ll likely be found more credible and see the benefit of his reputation when he launches the rumored AI hardware device, more likely to avoid the skepticism than first-movers like Humane and Rabbit.

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He may find the attention is not all positive. When Oklo completes the process of going public via Altman’s SPAC ($ALCC), it seems an obvious candidate to become a favorite of fanboys and groups like r/WallStreetBets. While likely a good thing for the price, just ask Musk about the (potential) downsides of having so many people around the table.

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That may make it difficult for Altman and his crew to remain nimble, a drawback in an early-stage environment. His status as a cult hero may also make it difficult to do the things that Altman has proven, time and time again, that he loves: tinkering with technology projects in public.

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He may find it challenging to launch a fun Chrome extension weekend project. (Though I think he’ll manage.)

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I ultimately do not know if it’s healthy to treat our business leaders with mythic-like status, nor do I know what to do with or about the phenomenon other than say this: I hope the path and result are better for Sam Altman than it has been for others like him.

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With both Jobs and Musk, the story has been complicated, reminiscent of a line in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 Dark Knight: “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain.” With Jobs and Musk, I think it’s safe to say this has been true in each case.

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Here’s hoping Sam Altman can navigate his way to a third outcome, one where he can pursue his vision for the improvement of humanity, without devolving into an internet troll who releases a Cybertruck.

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