Sam Altman: The World That Sam Made

From ChatGPT to Worldcoin, Sam Altman changed everything in 2023.

AccessTimeIconDec 4, 2023 at 12:46 p.m. UTC
Updated Jan 26, 2024 at 3:29 p.m. UTC
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Let's get the obvious out of the way: The last two weeks of Sam Altman drama have made even the herky-jerky cycles of crypto look staid and boring. He's fired! He's back! He's fired! He's at Microsoft! He's back! In the span of 96 hours, it felt like he was in-then-out more times than bitcoin (BTC) has mooned and crashed.

At the time of this writing, Sam Altman is once again the CEO of OpenAI. The particulars are still unknown. Why did the board turn on him? What will an internal inquiry reveal? How will his new reign be different? There are many questions, and it could be a while before we know the answers.

This profile is part of CoinDesk's Most Influential 2023. For the full list, click here.

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But in some ways none of that matters.

Or, more precisely, for the purposes of CoinDesk's Most Influential list for 2023, the recent whiplash is irrelevant.

Even if Altman never works another day in his life, you could make the case that he was not only 2023's most influential person in Web3/crypto, but more broadly the most influential person in the world, period, full stop. Thanks largely to ChatGPT, the genie of AI is out of the bottle and the world will never be the same.

The impact of AI on the Web3 space is sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle. The blindingly obvious: For much of 2023, it seemed like AI was all anyone in the tech world could talk about, dislodging crypto from its cultural perch. (A bear market didn't help.) Weekly AI meet-ups were the new bitcoin meet-ups. Countless blockchain projects "pivoted to AI." VCs poured billions of capital into AI startups.

Bitcoin vs. AI Search Interest
Bitcoin vs. AI Search Interest

Just look at the Google search trends for Bitcoin (blue) versus AI (red). The lines cross right after Altman released ChatGPT; that picture tells a thousand AI-generated words.

But look closer. While it's tempting to follow a "crypto versus AI" narrative, the truth is more complicated and reveals a surprising – and even healthier – relationship. At a recent crypto conference, I served as a judge for a hackathon, and nearly every project involved some form of AI. This doesn't mean they were "AI projects." They were Web3 projects with decentralized visions across a range of verticals and use cases, but most of them somehow harnessed AI to make them faster, more efficient and easier to scale. Isn't that one of crypto's fundamental goals?

Think of all the many tasks of a Web3 founder: Coding smart contracts, writing a business plan, launching a website, creating a logo, conducting market research, assessing the competition, hatching a marketing campaign, developing tokenomics, banging out blog posts, checking for errors, networking, and on and on and on. AI can help with all of this.

Meet the artist who created the image for this feature, Shavonne Wong.

As Haseeb Qureshi, Managing Partner of Dragonfly told me earlier this year, thanks to AI, "productivity will increase dramatically. Smaller startups will be able to do more." And while it's not quite fair to give Altman every bit of credit (or blame) for the impact of AI, he (via ChatGPT) is clearly the tip of the spear.

And, just as AI breathed life into the stock market, it has also fueled a new category of "AI meets blockchain" projects. True, many of these had launched before 2023, ranging from SingularityNET to Fetch.AI, but the eruption of generative AI gave a sudden urgency for new solutions. Could decentralized AI be a way to have our cake and eat it, too?

Worldcoin

Ironically, perhaps the most prominent AI-meets-crypto project comes from none other than Sam Altman himself. And that brings us to Worldcoin (WLD).

"Introducing Worldcoin, a new cryptocurrency that will be distributed fairly to as many people as possible," Altman tweeted in October 2021, unveiling "The Orb," a shiny chrome globe that scans your eyeballs. Once you have proved you are a human (as opposed to an AI-bot), you earn cryptocurrency just for having a pulse, as a type of universal basic income.

The ultimate vision is that super-advanced AI might replace jobs, but this will also create wealth and that largesse should be distributed to all, not just the wealthy tech elites. And the whole eyeball scanning thing? Altman and Worldcoin's parent company, Tools for Humanity, view it as a necessary evil. As AI gets better and better, they suspect the only way to prove we're human will be with biometric data.

(Shavonne Wong)

Click here to view and bid on the NFT created by Shavonne Wong. The auction will begin on Monday, Dec. 4, at 12 p.m. ET (17:00 UTC) and ends 24 hours after the first bid is placed. Holders of a Most Influential NFT will receive a Pro Pass ticket to Consensus 2024 in Austin, Texas. To learn more about Consensus, click here.

Just before Worldcoin officially launched in July of this year, I traveled to Berlin and used The Orb to scan my eyeballs. I met with Tools for Humanity CEO Alex Blania, I learned all about how The Orb works, and I spoke (via Zoom) with Sam Altman. (I wrote about it here.) He told me that he expects there to still be jobs in a post-AI world – likely better jobs than we have now – but that "we're going to need some sort of cushion through the transition."

Altman views Worldcoin as that cushion. In 2019, it was just an idea. As Blania told me in Berlin, it was originally conceived as "the Bitcoin Project," with the goal of giving free bitcoin to everyone on the planet. In 2020, they built prototypes. In 2021 and 2022, they began rolling it out. And, in July of 2023, Worldcoin officially launched. Three days after the launch, Altman posted a video and tweeted that there are "crazy lines around the world," and that "one person [is] getting verified every 8 seconds now."

The torrid pace continued. Four months later, Worldcoin already has 2.5 million sign-ups. Whatever your thoughts on the merits of Worldcoin, it must be acknowledged this is a stunning achievement in terms of crypto adoption. For some quick context, there are roughly five million Dogecoin wallets – a beloved cryptocurrency with several viral pushes over a decade. Worldcoin is halfway there in four months.

Even if Altman had no role whatsoever in ChatGPT or OpenAI, the aggressive roll-out of Worldcoin alone could earn him a nod for CoinDesk's Most Influential 2023 list. Bonus? Altman, Blania and the team from Tools for Humanity have effectively created a form of self-sovereign identity, or SSID, long one of crypto's holy grails. It's possible that even if the "coin" part of Worldcoin flounders (and the WLD token is still not available in the US for regulatory reasons), the privacy-preserving "World ID" will unlock value and use cases across the globe.

Altman knows Worldcoin has its skeptics. But, as he told me earlier this year, he's confident that as people get and use Worldcoin and World ID, that will create a domino effect that will, eventually, address the larger concerns. "What really works," Altman told me, "is the first million people, the early adopters, the people leaning forward – convince the next 10 million. Then that next 10 million is closer to the normies. And they convince the next 100 million. And those are really the normies that convince the other few billion."

And meanwhile, these few billion normies will almost certainly – in ways we can't yet predict – be impacted by AI … regardless of where Sam Altman works.

Edited by Ben Schiller.

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Jeff  Wilser

Jeff Wilser is the author of 7 books including Alexander Hamilton's Guide to Life, The Book of Joe: The Life, Wit, and (Sometimes Accidental) Wisdom of Joe Biden, and an Amazon Best Book of the Month in both Non-Fiction and Humor.


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