In a not-too-distant future city, superintelligent robots will carry out the majority of vital tasks. Driverless cars will ferry passengers to and from points of interest. Housing and healthcare will be affordable, if not free to all. Political leaders and technologists will speak the same language. And life is good.
Sam Altman, the 32-year-old president of Y Combinator, the most prestigious startup accelerator in Silicon Valley, has laid out this utopian vision over the years, and most definitively in a job listing posted on YC’s blog in June 2016.
“We’re seriously interested in building new cities and we think we know how to finance it if everything else makes sense,” the post read. “We need people with strong interests and bold ideas in architecture, ecology, economics, politics, technology, urban planning, and much more.”
Free houses, built by robots
Like many of his peers in Silicon Valley, Altman believes technology is the way to a better future. But his real-world ambitions are grander than most. He wants to investigate ways to build new cities, give people money for nothing, rethink voter registration, keep politicians accountable, and get new, Altman-approved leaders elected — all while running YC, which famously birthed startups like Airbnb and Dropbox.
Much like one of his notable colleagues, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Altman is set on turning the ideal into the practical. Both believe they have solid ideas for reshaping society. Sometimes this means executing plans within the next few months. Other times it means roadmapping projects decades down the line, and relying on phrases like “The maths should work out” to assuage a wary public.
“I have a very strong vision of where I’d like to see the world go,” Altman said. “And I don’t think it gets there by startups alone.”
In 2005, at age 19, Altman dropped out of Stanford to found the social-networking app Loopt, which he sold in 2012. In 2014, he replaced Paul Graham as YC president. These days, he says he spends 80% of his 65-hour weeks helping startups sort through their growing pains and get to market as fast as possible. The remaining 20% is dedicated to outside projects.
His baby is OpenAI, a nonprofit he cochairs with Musk that searches for benevolent ways to use artificial intelligence in daily life. Altman’s vision for how OpenAI could be deployed sheds light on how he wants to help people in real ways.
“Let’s imagine we get to a world where AI gets so good that robots can mine raw materials out of the ground, refine them, and build them into a house,” he told Business Insider. (These robots, he clarified, are solar-powered.) “You can imagine a world where you own a small piece of land, you can say, ‘Hey, robot. I would like a house here,’ and you come back like a month later and there’s a fully constructed house built for you for free.”
Altman sees that kind of far-future scenario as a boon for towns and cities plagued by a shortage of affordable housing. He’s seen the plight firsthand, from his home state of California to middle America.
In November 2016, shortly after Donald Trump won the presidency, Altman left YC’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, in search of 100 supporters of the president-elect. He asked them about their political views, their fears, and their gripes with America’s political landscape. He later published his findings on his blog for the world to see. “People don’t believe they have an economic future,” he said.
Over the past year, Altman has expressed a deep interest in resolving those economic concerns.
“[Fifty] years from now, I think it will seem ridiculous that we used fear of not being able to eat as a way to motivate people,” he wrote in a January 2016 blog post on YC. “I also think that it’s impossible to truly have equality of opportunity without some version of guaranteed income.”
That blog post announced YC’s intentions to launch an experiment in universal basic income (UBI), a system of wealth distribution that pays participants a set amount of money to use however they want. The premise, which is being tested in more than a half-dozen locations around the world, is that UBI can create a social safety net that reduces or even eliminates poverty.
Altman’s own experiment is small, for now. It’s running in Oakland, California, and involves about 100 people getting between $US1,000 and $US2,000 a month. The goal is to get some practice with delivering the money and collecting data. If that data come back showing basic income has left people better off, both emotionally and financially, YC will expand the project in a five-year, nationwide trial.
The same old Silicon Valley?
Society is poised to lose millions of jobs to AI, the prevailing research suggests. And it’s propelled in part by Silicon Valley-types like Altman, who himself is researching how robotics can replace human labour on a grand scale with projects like OpenAI. In recognition of that responsibility, he believes the tech world should at least be trying something.
“I don’t know if [basic income] is the answer or not to this massive technological revolution we’re in the middle of,” he said, “but it is something I’d like to study.”
But for all his involvement in political issues, Altman doesn’t consider himself a political person. He was raised in St. Louis to a pair of Democrat parents, with childhood memories of his time as a Boy Scout, tinkering with his Macintosh, and reading science fiction. He was interested more in computers than current events.
It’s really only been since 2014, when he replaced Graham as YC’s president, that he started to take a serious interest in how technology could improve the political process and the future of humanity. He began thinking of ways to broaden both his and YC’s horizons to support more nonprofits, like the ACLU, and startups focused purely on hard science, which he sees as vital to humanity’s progress.
Some have criticised Altman’s larger-than-life goals, claiming they are ambitious to a fault. When news broke last spring that he wanted to build brand-new cities, Allison Arieff, editorial director of the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, wrote on Twitter, “Y Combinator Aims to Build a New City From Scratch Because No One Has Ever Tried That Before.”
And writing for Gizmodo, Alissa Walker questioned why YC even felt the need to build a brand-new city, given all that’s wrong with existing urban areas. “Why not simply focus on improving the city of Mountain View, California, where Y Combinator is already located,” she wrote, “and which certainly needs to find solutions to many of these urban problems (some due to startups like Airbnb which Y Combinator has backed)?”
Anand Giridharadas, an author and New York Times columnist who writes about technology, politics, and society, has written that Silicon Valley in general is obsessed with what he calls “regressive innovation,” or the act of creating solutions that don’t actually make life better for people. Speaking with Business Insider, he referred to such VCs as “world-changer incubator-messiahs.”
Altman, for his part, has said he prefers to use the phrase “change the world” only after he’s already done so.
In most cases, he sees his role more as a facilitator than a doer. He understands the technology side of his projects, but he still relies on people more well versed in economics, public policy, and urban planning to inform them, he said.
“I don’t think tech is the solution to all problems,” he said. “And I certainly don’t think startups are the solution to all problems. They’re the solution to a lot, but if the tech industry doesn’t think about how everybody wins and everybody benefits, then we’ve kind of failed.”
Elizabeth Rhodes picked up on that mind-set in her first face-to-face encounter with Altman, earlier this February. Rhodes was wrapping up her doctorate in political science and social work at the University of Michigan and had applied to lead YC’s nascent basic-income project. In May, YC announced she had been selected.
“He was definitely very passionate about people’s struggles,” Rhodes recalled of her first meeting with Altman. Now more than a year into the job, she said Altman’s interest in solving social problems through policy has come more into focus. “He’s able to see more systemic changes that we could make, and he’s not afraid to say, ‘Let’s try testing it out.'”
It’s easy to compare Altman’s outsize ambitions to Elon Musk and his many projects. But Altman calls the comparison “ridiculous,” since he considers the serial entrepreneur less of an equal as much as a singular, multi-industry titan. “Elon is in a class by himself,” Altman said.
The basic similarities are there. Musk has said in repeated interviews that the future grips him so deeply, without a passion for it he would never get out of bed in the morning. Altman envisions far-off societies hiring robots to build houses and giving people free cash from the government. He also shares Musk’s view that these kinds of mega-projects aren’t crazy. At the 2015 Vanity Fair Summit, the two appeared onstage to discuss, in calm voices, how they might live on Mars or harness the sun for nuclear energy.
“I believe that most things I work on are practical and someday will be hugely important,” Altman told Business Insider.
Rewriting the social contract
In May, rumours began to swirl that Altman’s political interests had compelled him to run for California governor in 2018. He seemed to be making a familiar transition from the private world into the public spotlight — a move Carly Fiorina, Peter Thiel, and other prominent Silicon Valley names had made before him.
But Altman ultimately went a different route. In mid-July he put the rumours to bed by issuing an open call on his blog for similar-minded political candidates that he could support. He could offer money, connections, and tech to help them get into the governor’s office.
His requirements for the candidate: They should believe affordable housing is one of the most pressing issues in the state, because, as Altman put it, “The high cost of living hurts poor people the most, and it’s destroying our country.” And they should believe in single-payer healthcare, clean energy, skills-based education, and rewriting tax codes that favour the middle class.
“It’s this pro-growth, pro-innovation, and pro-distribution idea,” Altman said, “where we’re going to have — as we’ve had after every technological revolution — we’re going to have to rewrite the social contract.”
What we’re going for is a few really big world-changing hits and a lot of failures along the way.
Altman’s move into politics reflects the ways philanthropy has shifted in recent years, fusing entrepreneurship with social causes, according to Brooks Rainwater, the director of the City Solutions and Applied Research Center at the National League of Cities. “What you’re seeing is the tech mentality of pilot projects being grafted onto the social space,” he said. “And I think there’s a lot of opportunity here.”
Critics tend to see that opportunity more as a threat — that entrepreneurs have no business in government because they will focus only on a small group of people, neglecting the masses. Even President Obama expressed doubt that leaders in the tech world could make the leap into the public realm.
Pivoting from certain projects or abandoning them altogether isn’t a matter of if, but when, Altman said.
“We try to make the cost of failing super low,” he said. “What we’re going for is a few really big world-changing hits and a lot of failures along the way. I view that just as the overhead of doing business.”
He applies the mentality equally to his day job of helping startups and to his societal-improvement projects.
“If you’re going to focus your life on the really long-term, somewhat implausible-sounding schemes, you have to be willing to be mocked and misunderstood,” Altman said. “Right up until the day when it works.”
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