Sam Altman is the head of Y Combinator, a competitive seed accelerator that nurtures and then launches promising startups into the world. These companies, which include Airbnb and Dropbox, often go on to become household names.
But Altman seems pretty focused on politics right now. He is not a Donald Trump supporter, but he just wrote a blog post about visiting and hearing from 100 Trump supporters around the country to get their perspective on the new president and the left’s response to his leadership.
Below is an edited transcript of our interview with him.
Ben Johnson: So why did you do this? Why did you go out and talk to Trump supporters?
Sam Altman: I think like many other people in Silicon Valley I was sort of in a state of disbelief and disappointment and wondering how to move forward. And it felt like, and it still feels like to me, that we're sort of starting down a dangerous path, and I wanted to understand, given that I didn't know very many Trump voters personally, why people were supporting this candidate that I thought was so dangerous.
Johnson: You feel better about it now?
Altman: You know, it's kind of day by day. There are some days where I feel like I'm overreacting and he's not going to be that bad. And there are some days where it just feels like "What's happening to the country?"
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Johnson: It was interesting to read that some people were even a little bit nervous about talking to you because you were involved in the tech world.
Altman: One of the things that I've learned that I don't think I had an appreciation for before this, given that I'm so much on the inside of tech, is the perception that came up again and again — a feeling that liberals, and especially Silicon Valley, are more intolerant than the people that we normally accuse of being intolerant. And there was a feeling that it was just completely unacceptable to be a Trump supporter and that you couldn't say anything in support of Trump, and that if you did, you would have people attack you. You couldn't even say that you supported the good parts of Trump. Even if you said, "I don't like the person at all but I like policy X, Y and Z." Even that, people felt like it was just totally unacceptable to say.
Johnson: How did you feel about the fact that a lot of this stuff seems to mirror the feelings that people on the left seem to feel, or people in the tech world sometimes feel about Trump supporters? I mean, it's the same exact argument but flipped.
Altman: Yeah, I mean, again that was a real eye opener for me. That was not something that I think I really had any understanding for. And I think that certainly changed my mind to at least be a little bit more open to hearing people out — a lot more open to hearing people out.
Johnson: What else did you learn?
Altman: Another thing that surprised me was the how strong the anti-political correctness current ran, and that people feel like we've somehow gotten super miscalibrated there. And one thing that people really liked about Trump is just that he would say these things that no other politician would ever say. And there was this feeling that we need to be open to saying unpopular things and that people shouldn't get in trouble for misspeaking, or — "thought crime" was a word that came up a few times. So the frequency of that surprised me.
You know the thing that kind of disappointed me — I expected to be unhappy about a lot of things I heard, but one thing that really disappointed me a lot because I feel so strongly in the other direction was how strongly the anti-immigrant feelings ran. And this was not just about immigrants taking jobs, although there was plenty of that. But there was this — people came again and again to things like, "We need to preserve American culture, and we need safety, and immigrants are the opposite of all these things." And it's interesting to me because I think before Trump's campaign if you asked Republicans what the biggest problems facing the U.S. were, if I had to guess, I don't think immigrants would have been so high on the list. But he made that such a central part of the campaign rhetoric that it kind of incepted this idea that I think is so deeply anti-American. I really didn't like hearing that.
To say something positive, I really did like most of the people, and although we had disagreements I think many times I was able to change their mind; sometimes they were able to change my mind. And it reminded me that I think one thing that has gone deeply wrong as a consequence of technology is that we have all been able to surround ourselves only with people who say things that we agree with, and as we retreat more and more into the internet and out of the physical world, we have the capability to only talk to people who say things we like. And it's different than when we were sort of forced to talk to and engage with the people that were around us in the physical world who wouldn't all be the same. It used to be that if you didn't like your neighbor, you still kind of talk to them sometimes because you saw them on the street, and there's some need for human connection, and now you can just go find the little tiny slice of the internet that agrees with you on every position. Breaking out of that was quite refreshing.
Johnson: Interesting that you attribute this to technology this problem.
Altman: Technology is the cause and solution to all problems.
Johnson: Do you think it's a solution too? And if so, how do you think it can solve the problem?
Altman: I've been doing some work on that recently. I think that the technology industry needs to come together. We have shown that we can use technology to highlight differences, to great effect, and it remains to be seen if we can use technology to highlight similarities and bring people back together. I believe that we can. But it has not yet been a focus. I think if I could name two or three things I'd like to see the technology industry do to help the country, that would be that would be one of them.
Johnson: How did you meet these people? How did you find them?
Altman: Well, I grew up in the Midwest, so I have people that I have not been super close to but that I still know that live there. And I have, just in my work and travels, I have met a lot of people from all over the world. And I email with many hundreds of people every day and there were some that I suspected might be one to talk to me or at least connect me to people that they thought I should talk to. I also, a few times, just sort of like went to coffee shops in very different places and started chatting people up — strangers. Those were some of the most interesting conversations. Those people had no idea who I was, didn't care about me at all, were willing to speak totally freely, which was nice. And I posted on Facebook and got connected to a bunch of people there as well.
Johnson: President Trump is ostensibly good for American business. This argument has been made again and again, but Silicon Valley's priorities and the White House's priorities, social or otherwise, seem pretty far apart. How does knowing more about Trump supporters impact your business at Y Combinator and the startup industry?
Altman: You know, one of the things that I think has always been hard about Trump is we don't know if he's going to be good for business or not. Trump said a lot of things. He hasn't done all of them yet. I'm not sure if he will. I think there is hope among some people in the business community. But honestly I think we don't really know what he's going to do yet, and we will wait and find out. I mean, there are some things that people think will be good. There are some things that people think will be bad, like restricting immigration and the ability to get top talent in the United States. I don't know how it's all going to cut. I think we just have to wait and see.
Johnson: But I mean you obviously have personal strong feelings about this, and this is part of the motivation for you going out and doing this. But does it also relate to the work you do at Y Combinator?
Altman: Yeah. I mean, we — I think it's always hard to say that we're trying to do things that we think are important to make the world better without coming across as like super obnoxious and insincere. So I don't know how to say that in any way that will come across as real, but that really is what I care about. I also care about making sure that we get the very best talent from around the world and to the United States. I think it's one of the biggest assets the country has, is that the best people around the world want to come here and invent new technology and build businesses. And if we lose that I think we'll regret it very quickly. And clearly that's under attack by the Trump administration.
I also think that we are on the verge of maybe the third great technological revolution. And I think it's really important that we as a society figure out what we're going to do about this coming age of automation, and artificial intelligence, and job change, and re-education, and wealth redistribution. And I think that this administration does not understand the best way to do that.
Johnson: I was going to actually ask you about open AI. This sort of idea that you founded with Elon Musk that is about preventing essentially the destruction of humanity by artificial intelligence. What do you think most people don't understand about this coming third technological revolution that you're talking about?
Altman: I think in the next 10 years almost all repetitive work that humans do today will be done better and cheaper and faster by machines. All of this is not simply blue collar labor. There was a paper last week about an AI dermatologist that can now beat all human doctors in diagnosing melanoma from an image. There was another thing a few months ago about a lawyer that was better than human lawyers. This is coming in a lot of areas very quickly, and I don't think people are ready for it. You know, one of my best investments last year was a company called Cruise, a self-driving car company. They started in Y Combinator in 2014. They were acquired by GM for $1 billion-something in 2016. And when they started they had nothing working. Three months later by the end of YC, they had hacked up an Audi to drive from San Francisco to Mountain View autonomously. At this point, people said that was a parlor trick and that self-driving cars were still decades away. And earlier this year they released a video of a car driving through a city in incredibly difficult conditions perfectly. So all of this stuff is just happening really, really fast.
Johnson: And it sounds to me like you're deeply worried about the wedges that already exist politically between some of these people in these parts of the country that you went out and talked to, and the coasts and the work that is being done there. Are you worried that this leap forward in AI is only going to sort of exacerbate and increase those problems?
Altman: Well, it depends how we as a society deal with it. It could be bad. It could also be the best thing ever. You know ,one of my professional goals is to eliminate all human suffering through artificial intelligence. And I believe that's possible and that we're going to get that done. But there's major societal changes that have to happen along the way.
Johnson: Can you give a specific example of that? How do you eliminate human suffering with artificial intelligence?
Altman: Oh! Look, we've made incredible progress eliminating the worst forms of poverty. But in terms of people having enough money to have access to what I would consider a great life — you know, great health care, education, personal fulfillment, a nice place to live, good food to eat — we're still a long ways away from that. And if artificial intelligence delivers in the way I believe it will, we will have so much wealth that we will be able to get everyone a great life for a reasonable cost. And that's awesome. But we better get that right.
Johnson: I've never fully understood that idea that somehow the economy is going to run by itself because of automation and generate wealth that we will all then distribute to everyone who doesn't have jobs anymore.
Altman: It won't entirely run by itself, but I don't think we're that far away from a system where if you have a piece of land you can have a house for free. You know, there will be robots that can mine the materials, robots that can refine them, robots that can make them into the pieces of a house or robots that can drive the trucks to get them to your land. And robots that can assemble them into the house and, you know, probably power all of this with solar energy. So literally for zero dollars of human labor or cost of materials and goods you can have a house. Now normally, the value there would accrue to the owners of those robots, which is why I think we need some level of distribution. And I also don't think that giving people a house and food and medical care is enough. I think that people get a sense of fulfillment and happiness and dignity out of work and being needed. And if we don't figure out new societal structures, which is why I think this is so important for government to address, then people will have everything they thought they wanted, but still be unhappy. Or some people will. So I don't think wealth redistribution alone is the entire puzzle but it is a piece of it.
Johnson: I want to turn back to politics for a minute. You have counterparts in Silicon Valley who have taken roles with the Trump administration. I mean, this week there are folks who are meeting with him who are from the tech world, notably entrepreneur Peter Thiel. What do you see your role as being over the next four years, coming from where you're coming from?
Altman: I have some thoughts about that. I'm not quite ready to talk about it, but I want to get more involved, although not with this particular administration. I'm happy people are. I think it's really great that there are smart people from the technology industry willing to work with him. I'm super happy that Elon is engaged on his business council, and I thought it was the reception that he got on the internet was really wrong and really unfair. I think we need smart people that are willing to try to work with him, because you know, he is our president. People forget that, but he really is. And I applaud people willing to try to engage with him on the issues important to the tech industry.
Johnson: How come you're not one of them?
Altman: I don't think I could personally stomach it, but I'm very glad other people are.