This superhero narrative is the secret engine behind almost every book beloved by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Travis Kalanick, one of the founders of Uber, was a follower of Ayn Rand, whose heroes are at war with society. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, was a childhood fan of “Star Trek,” where Captain Kirk made every decision and took charge of every landing party. Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist who backed Donald J. Trump in 2016, loves “The Lord of the Rings,” an epic story in which a handful of heroes save the world. Mr. Thiel’s corporate names (Palantir, Mithril, Valar) are taken from history.
Mr. Altman, to his credit, has endorsed a broad reading list that goes beyond the books written by his Silicon Valley friends, like Mr. Thiel. He recommended another Valley favorite, Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi series “Foundation,” which once again tells the story of how a charismatic, far-sighted scientist and his mostly male sidekicks can save everyone, occurrence 25 million planets.
But the path to becoming a true Gandalf or a true Captain Picard is fraught with peril.
Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos was inspired by Mr. Jobs. When she couldn’t get her blood testing technology to work, she just pretended it did. Adam Neumann promised to reinvent the office experience with WeWork. It declared bankruptcy two weeks ago, even though Mr. Neumann managed to enrich himself. Sam Bankman-Fried, the brilliant promise of cryptocurrency, will be sentenced in March for fraud. Elon Musk didn’t help his reputation or his bank account by buying Twitter, now called X.
For Mr. Altman, last weekend may have been a personal high. Despite all the rumors about AI taking jobs, he suddenly became the essential person in all of technology. An article on X by Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, captured some of the mood, not to mention the fact that Google is in fierce competition with OpenAI:
“Sam Altman is one of my heroes. He built a company from nothing to a value of $90 billion and changed our collective world forever. I can’t wait to see what he does next. Myself and billions of people will benefit from his future work – it will be nothing short of incredible.
That’s Jobs-level praise. Perhaps wisely, Mr. Altman rejected every offer that came his way to fund his next start-up. Microsoft, the largest investor in OpenAI, announced its arrival on Sunday evening. He will work for others now.