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‘That’s the Miracle’: OpenAI CEO Sam Altman Talks Undergrad Years, Future of AI at Harvard Event

Sam Altman, right, speaks at a packed event in Memorial Church on Wednesday.
Sam Altman, right, speaks at a packed event in Memorial Church on Wednesday. By Emily L. Ding
By Matan H. Josephy and Akshaya Ravi, Crimson Staff Writers

OpenAI CEO and billionaire technology entrepreneur Sam Altman discussed his startup journey and the future of artificial intelligence at an event in Memorial Church on Wednesday.

During the event, which drew an audience of more than one thousand, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Dean David C. Parkes presented Altman with the “Xfund Experiment Cup,” a symbolic trophy awarded by the firm to “extraordinary founders from the world’s best universities.”

The event — hosted by venture capital firm Xfund, Harvard Business School, and SEAS — was moderated by Xfund co-founder Patrick S. Chung ’96, Altman’s first investor.

Founded in 2011, Xfund is a partnership between four venture capital firms and Harvard that describes itself as an “early-stage venture capital firm dedicated to finding and supporting gifted entrepreneurs with a liberal arts mindset.”

Following the discussion, Altman — who previously led venture capital giant Y Combinator — held private audiences to judge startup pitches from eight pre-selected student teams, with the winner receiving a $100,000 investment from Xfund.

During the event, Altman reflected on his journey from being “more on the nerd side” in high school to beginning as an undergraduate at Stanford University to dropping out and founding his first company.

In particular, Altman said he “decided to take a lot of other classes” at Stanford, which “ended up being way more helpful in retrospect.”

“Taking all the science classes was great,” he said, and “taking writing classes was great.”

Despite his role at the forefront of the technological sector, Altman warned that scientific development can also pose dangers.

“I don’t think we should let our passion for scientific progress lead us to make decisions that significantly impact the world,” he said. “But you don’t always know when you’re making a decision that’s going to significantly impact the world.”

In an interview with The Crimson before the event, Altman also spoke about the release of future installments of OpenAI’s chatbot, ChatGPT.

“The most important thing to say about GPT-5 versus GPT-4 is just that it’ll be smarter,” he said. “It’s not that it’s better in this way or that way.”

“The fact that we can make progress across all model behavior and capabilities at once — I think that’s the miracle,” he added.

Still, Altman said, he’s open to moving beyond the “GPT paradigm.”

“I’m very excited about new directions to explore,” he said. “I think we’ll be able to do important new directions. We take our time.”

The event also featured some light-hearted moments as Altman was asked about the rival relationship between “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” and which he liked more.

“‘Oppenheimer,’”Altman said.

Correction: May 6, 2024

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that venture capital firm Xfund is Harvard-affiliated. In fact, Xfund does not have a formal relationship with Harvard.

—Staff writer Matan H. Josephy can be reached Follow him on X @matanjosephy.

—Staff writer Akshaya Ravi can be reached at Follow her on X @akshayaravi22.

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