Sam Altman’s Manifest Destiny
One balmy May evening, thirty of Silicon Valley’s top entrepreneurs gathered in a private room at the Berlinetta Lounge, in San Francisco. Paul Graham considered the founders of Instacart, DoorDash, Docker, and Stripe, in their hoodies and black jeans, and said, “This is Silicon Valley, right here.” All the founders were graduates of Y Combinator, the startup “accelerator” that Graham co-founded: a three-month boot camp, run twice a year, in how to become a “unicorn”—Valleyspeak for a billion-dollar company. Thirteen thousand fledgling software companies applied to Y Combinator this year, and two hundred and forty were accepted, making it more than twice as hard to get into as Stanford University. After graduating thirteen hundred startups, YC now boasts the power—and the peculiarities—of an island nation.
At the noisy end of the room, Graham was cheerfully encouraging improbable schemes. At the quiet end, Sam Altman was absorbed in private calculations. When founders came over to talk, he’d train his green eyes on them, listen to their propositions, then crisply observe, “What everyone gets wrong about that is . . .” In 2014, Graham chose Altman—who, at thirty-one, is twenty years his junior—to succeed him as Y Combinator’s president. The two men share a close friendship, a religious zeal for YC, and an inexplicable fondness for cargo shorts. But, where Graham proposes, Altman disposes. At Graham’s table, he and others discussed how to stop Donald Trump, then decided to reach out to an affiliated expert: Chris Lehane, a former White House lawyer now at the YC company Airbnb. Altman declared, “The best idea seems to be just to support Hillary.”
At a hundred and thirty pounds, Altman is poised as a clothespin, fierce as a horned owl. Even in a Valley that worships productivity, he is an outlier, plowing through e-mails and meetings as if strapped to a time bomb, his unblinking stare speeding up colleagues until they sound like chipmunks. Though he is given to gee-whizzery about anything “super awesome”—Small amounts of radiation are actually good for you! It’s called radiation hormesis!—he has scant interest in the specifics of the apps that many YC companies produce; what intrigues him is their potential effect on the world. To determine that, he’ll upload all he needs to know about, say, urban planning or nuclear fusion. Patrick Collison, the C.E.O. of the electronic-payments company Stripe, likened Altman’s brain to the claw machine on a carnival midway: “It roams around but has the ability to plunge very deep when necessary.”
A blogger recently asked Altman, “How has having Asperger’s helped and hurt you?” Altman told me, “I was, like, ‘Fuck you, I don’t have Asperger’s!’ But then I thought, I can see why he thinks I do. I sit in weird ways”—he folds up like a busted umbrella—“I have narrow interests in technology, I have no patience for things I’m not interested in: parties, most people. When someone examines a photo and says, ‘Oh, he’s feeling this and this and this,’ all these subtle emotions, I look on with alien intrigue.” Altman’s great strengths are clarity of thought and an intuitive grasp of complex systems. His great weakness is his utter lack of interest in ineffective people, which unfortunately includes most of us. I found his assiduousness alarming at first, then gradually endearing. When I remarked, after a few long days together, that he never seemed to visit the men’s room, he said, “I will practice going to the bathroom more often so you humans don’t realize that I’m the A.I.”
When he took over YC, he inherited a budding colossus. The venture capitalist Chris Dixon told me, “They created the greatest business model of all time. For basically no money”— YC gives each company just a hundred and twenty thousand dollars, to cover expenses—“they get seven per cent of a lot of the best startups in Silicon Valley!” Collectively, YC companies are worth eighty billion dollars, a valuation that has grown seventeenfold in the past five years.