On a recent episode of Recode Decode, Y Combinator president Sam Altman joined Recode’s Kara Swisher at the San Francisco bar Manny’s for a live discussion about the state of tech. Their conversation, moderated by the bar’s owner Manny Yekutiel, touched on the diversity of Silicon Valley’s employees, the future of artificial intelligence, whether Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg should fire himself and much more.
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Manny and Sam.
Manny Yekutiel: Tonight’s conversation is Technology and Politics: How the Fuck Did We Get Here? But I left the F-word out of the EventBrite title.
Kara Swisher: Okay, all right.
Manny Yekutiel: So how it’s gonna go is we’re gonna talk for about 45 minutes. We’re just gonna kibbitz here; that’s Yiddish for just kinda like ...
I know what that is, thank you. I grew up in Roslyn Harbor, Long Island. I’m good.
Manny Yekutiel: Okay, good. I want to hear the Long Island accent come up.
I’m a shaineh madela.
Manny Yekutiel: Oh, you are a shaineh madela.
See, there you go. Anyway, move along.
Manny Yekutiel: Sam’s jealous.
Manny Yekutiel: Okay, so then 45 minutes of us kibbitzing and then 45 minutes of you guys. I have an Oprah mic down here that I’m gonna hand to you guys for Q&A. So we’re just gonna chat for 45, you guys for 45, and then you guys can keep drinking, all right? So let’s begin.
Manny Yekutiel: So we’re gonna kinda move chronologically a little bit here, and I want you guys ... For those in the audience that haven’t been to conversations with you already and haven’t met you, talk a little bit about the utopia that the early technologists were thinking about when they thought about how technology and the World Wide Web would interact with politics. What did people think was gonna happen with the intersection of tech and politics?
I mean, I can start. I think they didn’t think at all; I think you think that they thought and they know what they were doing, and I think a lot of things get written after people become billionaires or after they become successful. But having been there at the very beginning ... I actually lived in Washington, I worked for the Washington Post when the internet was actually born. Not when it was born, because it was there before as a government entity, but when it was commercialized for the first time; was when they released it and there was legislation, which I covered, and actually Al Gore ... That’s how I met Al Gore because he was a principal senator behind it; he did, in fact, invent the internet, and he was integral to that.
And so you imagine that people had great thoughtfulness towards what was gonna happen or the implications, and they absolutely did not. And I think that’s a lie that is now being borne out today, is that you think that Mark Zuckerberg, for example, to name someone who’s plunging toward disaster right now, had an idea of what was gonna happen. I don’t think they had any idea whatsoever, and in fact designed these systems in a way that if you had an idea of what was gonna happen or any kind of anticipation, you might’ve made other choices in the way they were built.
Sam Altman: I don’t think people knew what was gonna happen because it’s sort of ... It’s unimaginable what has happened. Fourteen years ago, Facebook was a website that no one took seriously in Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm room. You know, 14 years ago, the first prototype of the iPhone, I don’t think, had been made. The speed and the size and the impact that has happened, I think that we’ve just lived through one of the three great technological revolutions in human history, and the rate of change of technology is so much faster than the rate of change of people; certainly of evolution, but even how quickly we can update our own thought processes.
I think I agree that people didn’t think about what was gonna happen, but it was not out of any malice; it was just like it’s hard to have ... I remember what it was like at the beginning of that. It’s hard to imagine that it got this big, that it went this well.
Well, so you’re saying they didn’t have malice. I mean, that’s a pretty low bar; it’s like they weren’t assholes. That shouldn’t be the bar. It’s just that thoughtlessness can just have the same amount of damage.
Sam Altman: Oh, for sure.
... that lack of ... And my issue with a lot of is, as it began to develop, they pretended that they didn’t have the power and money they were collecting. And so the thoughtlessness continued, and continues today, with the people who run ...
Sam Altman: So I certainly think what has gone wrong is when it became clear this was going to be as big as it has become, people didn’t stop and say, “Okay, what do we do now?” But at the beginning, when people were just sort of imagining what the internet was gonna be like and what mobile was gonna do, I don’t think anyone could have really predicted this. That would be very hard.
Manny Yekutiel: But wasn’t ... I remember when I first moved here, I went to Noisebridge and there were all these kind of anarco-hackers that were talking about how, you know, afterwards we’re not gonna have governments, we’re not gonna ... That tech is gonna kinda free everyone and break our chains. And wasn’t there this kind of undercurrent of folks who thought of technology as a way to break down the systems of power?
Well, unusual because it was all white men, who are really the most under-siege people on the planet. So no. I’m gonna say no for that one. I do think that ...
Manny Yekutiel: That’s a hard no from Kara Swisher.
It’s a hard no. You know, it’s interesting when I think back because I came here in 19 ... I’d written a book about AOL, which was the first commercialized, really ...
Manny Yekutiel: I remember chat rooms.
Chat rooms and things like that. And I came here because I was hired to the Wall Street Journal to cover the ... It wasn’t even called the internet; it was online services. And I was the first reporter to cover the internet for them. And when I got ... I’ve told this story before. When I got the job, a lot of the media reporters said, “Oh, you’re here to cover CB radio,” and I was like, “No, I’m here to cover the medium that’s gonna decimate all your industries. Nice to meet you.” And they were like ...
Manny Yekutiel: So you haven’t changed one bit.
No, not a bit. No.
But it was really interesting because you got a sort of front row seat to ... I mean, I remember going ... By the way, Google didn’t even exist for a long ... Oh my goodness. Didn’t even exist for a long time from when I was here, but it was Marc Andreessen when he was ... he might’ve been a teenager when I met him; I think he was 19 or something. You know, early at Yahoo when they were five or six people. Bezos I met when he had five people. Like it was really early. Early, early, early on.
Manny Yekutiel: Okay, so let’s take a giant leap forward to closer to today, and part of the reason why I wanted to do this conversation with you guys as it relates to civic engagement is I think we’re living in a time where people have a lot of anger, tension, anxiety around the intersection with how technology has affected our politics, specifically after this 2016 election. So one of the first questions I wanted to ask is do you think people would be feeling this way if Hillary Clinton had won?
Sam Altman: I mean, yes, but they’d be different people. Fifty percent of the country would be feeling this way, but a different 50 percent.
Manny Yekutiel: Even with the whole like, you know, if Russia had tried to ... Because part of it was this feeling that the Russians co-opted our technology in order to make it so that Donald Trump would win, right? So there’s this feeling of this tool that was supposed to help us fucking everything up. And do you ... If Donald Trump had won even given that ... Sorry, if Hillary Clinton had won given that, do you really think that there’d be this much angst and anxiety?
Sam Altman: I personally do. I mean, I think there are other people on the other side who would say, well, there were these other powerful things that were trying to help Hillary win. I think the story would get told either way, and I think there were probably a lot of people on both sides trying to use the platforms to influence.
You know, I remember it was only two election cycles ago when candidates were saying, “Well, do I have to think about digital at all? Like, I just do it by TV ads, right?” So the speed with which technology has changed politics and the degree to which I think most candidates still don’t understand that is huge, and I think that a lot of people wish that hadn’t happened or that change hadn’t happened so quickly in politics.
But I always believe people when they say they’re angry. I think that is always true, but it’s very hard to articulate the precise reason you’re angry, and I think you see a lot of that in the way people talk about technology in the 2016 election. Something clearly has changed in what I would say is a bad way, at least it’s a very different way, but it’s hard to precisely articulate what that is and what we want to do about it.
There’s two parts. First of all, look, Donald Trump is very good at the internet, and Brad Parscale, even though he’s a loathsome creature, is also ...
Manny Yekutiel: Who’s that?
He’s the campaign manager for Trump and he was the digital director, and he’s the one that really did understand how to use and target people in really ... Some nefarious ways, some very effective ways, appeal to fear and anger. Target people online and use these services the way that you would sell cookies or a movie or something like that. Really did understand it. And I think the Clinton campaign was still operating in an old style, a digital style, and so was the Democratic Party.
And one of the things that’s always been really striking because the original people, if you ... A couple cycles ago it was Howard Dean and Joe what’s-his-name. Oh, that guy, Trippy, right. We had him at one of our AllThingsD [conferences] one year. He had done some of the early digital stuff for Howard Dean, which was effective initially, but the problem was not everybody had a cellphone, not everybody was online, and things like that. And one of the people we actually interviewed way back then was Ralph Reid.
Because one of the things that’s interesting if you think about it is, for much of the 20th century, most of the media outlets were liberal; were liberal or left-center, center-left, centrist, but certainly not conservative. And even though they say we’re fair, they just weren’t. They were liberal, essentially. And the right-wing did not have a place to talk until online, and so they got very good at it very early because they were the out-of-power people. And so they moved to cable, like with Fox News, and it’s hard to think of now, but cable was an outlying medium back then. And the same thing with the internet; they used the internet really well and they learned how to use and communicate on it really well, and then they learned how to use it in a more nefarious way.
Manny Yekutiel: Do you think we’ve moved too fast? I mean Sam, you’ve said twice here that no one could’ve imagined how much it would change in 15 years. Do you feel like we developed too quickly and society’s just not catching up and we should’ve gone slower? Is that even possible?
Sam Altman: Well, what I was gonna say is I would love it if that were possible. But in like the world we have, the fastest-moving company tends to win; the company that gets to the most scale the fastest and proves the fastest, makes the best products, tends to win, and that’s mostly good. But it has some important negative consequences, and I think we’re all now wrestling with what to do about that.
But I think it’s very hard to stop progress; that probably won’t work. And I think what we can do, and what I think we need to figure out how to do now, is how do we as a society adapt more quickly when the world can change so fast? I think it’s better to try to get faster at society correcting than trying to slow down technological progress, and we so far have been very bad at that.
Manny Yekutiel: So we’re ...
It’s interesting because the way you’re talking about it is if we don’t have control over it, right? That these people have done it, we have done this. We haven’t done this. Certain people have done this, and they run these companies.
And so what’s really interesting about Silicon Valley that I’ve covered is when there’s successes, we sort of celebrate a lot of these people like they’re geniuses. I always say ... They always tell me ... They spend all day telling me how smart they are, like continually. Not you, Sam. You’re lovely.
Sam Altman: Thank you.
Again, low bar. But they ...
Sam Altman: I’ll still take it.
Good. Take it, take it. Run, run, run right out the door.
Manny Yekutiel: She pays you a compliment, you take that compliment.
You run right down Valencia; you keep going till you get to Palo Alto.
So they spend a lot of time telling you how smart they are, and then when things go wrong, they move into the “we.” Like if you’ve noticed that with Zuckerberg ... Have you noticed that? Like “Well, I want to ... The community wants to work together to fix this problem.” And I was in an interview with him; I go, “Well, you own the community,” and he’s like, “Yes, but I think the community should all decide.” And I go, “But you have 60 percent of the company and you control it. You’re the CEO, the chairman and the founder, and you have unprecedented power over this giant organization of which you have no ability to run.” And yet the people should work together. And I was like, “Well when do the people get power?” It just goes ... It’s hysterical to watch.
Sam Altman: I have a question for you: Do you think Mark Zuckerberg should be the one who decides who gets to use Facebook and who doesn’t, and who gets to say stuff and who doesn’t, and what you can say and what you can’t?
Yes. I think he built the company, and yes, he should. This is his product.
Sam Altman: And does that future not ...
He’s not a government. He’s not a government, and this is the lie that Silicon Valley tells you. This is a for-profit company of which Mark Zuckerberg is now a $64 billionaire.
Sam Altman: For sure, but ...
So he took the money.
Sam Altman: ... in some sense he’s bigger than a government, and we ...
Yes, of course he is, and that’s what’s terrifying.
Sam Altman: And yet he’s unfireable.
He’s unfireable. That’s what I said. Unkillable, unfireable. I think I called him a mix between ... In the Times column last week, I called him a mix between ... If you mix Wolverine and Deadpool together and added in, you know, a zombie or two.
Sam Altman: I think all ... I don’t agree with that, just to say it clearly.
Manny Yekutiel: I’m just gonna let this ...
Wait, hold this for a second. I’m a little warm right now. I’ve gotta change brands, hold up.
Manny Yekutiel: We’ve got a moment. I’m gonna wait for this. I feel like ... I don’t know what’s happening here.
I gotta be careful you don’t get a boob shot. You got it?
Manny Yekutiel: Yeah, I got it.
Okay, all right.
Manny Yekutiel: All right. Some people call it changing hats, you call it changing T-shirts.
Sam Altman: So look, I certainly would like to see different rules for what you’re allowed to say and not say on the internet, but it scares me to think that a small handful of people that are not accountable to us and not elected by us and can do whatever they want get to make the decisions about who gets to exist online and who doesn’t. So I would welcome regulations for who gets a megaphone, who gets a platform, what you’re allowed to say and not say.
But it’s surprising to me to hear people that are traditionally very far on the left in the technology industry saying, “We want the companies to make these rules,” not, “We want a government that we get to elect to make these rules.”
Look, the broadcast networks have been doing it forever, so I don’t know ... Would you have a problem when the New York Times did it? It was like 12 white guys on the Upper West Side of New York would decide what was on the front page of the New York Times every day for decades.
Sam Altman: Actually I think that was bad too.
Yes, exactly. I’m saying the broadcast networks were the same; this is not different. What’s different is the size, and the unprecedented size and influence and impact, and the amplification of the situation. But it’s not un-similar to the person who ran CBS and NBC and ABC when there were only three networks.
Sam Altman: To be clear, I feel equally bad about three people deciding ... Like I don’t think that was a good world either when we had, you know, the three heads of those networks deciding what people got to hear. I think that’s ...
That’s always been the world, and I think what’s ...
Sam Altman: But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t shoot for something better.
Right. The only ... Except what? Because this is what always coalesces, is power in the hands of a certain small group of people who are typically the same people, and then the discussion turns to, say, right now for example, the discussions around tribalism, like how there’s so much tribalism. The issue isn’t tribalism, the issue is the system sucks for most people.
And so what ... Let me just finish. What happens is, for example on these platforms, is the people building them have never felt unsafe in their life for one second. And so what happens is ... Like I was with someone from Twitter and they had suddenly gotten attacked online for something; they’d suddenly gotten strafed, like the ... And they said, “This is really hard,” and I go, “Welcome to the rest of the world for women, people of color, gays and the rest of us.” They get this all the time, and it depends on what group it is.
And so what happens is the ... The problem is the diversity at the top is lacking. If there was a more diverse top, you would get a very different outcome here.
Sam Altman: So I think that ... I’m all for the different outcome and I’m all for sort of way more investment to fix the problem of harassment and discrimination online. I think that’s become a huge problem.
For all that tech has done wrong, I do think one thing that’s really great is that those people who have been denied a voice, who have not been the three white guys in charge of the network, finally have a voice and we’re seeing huge social change come from that. And honestly, for all of the hugely negative things that have gone wrong and for all of the ways we haven’t yet figured out how to adapt to this, which are huge, the fact that everyone in the world now has access to a platform and a voice. We’ve seen incredibly positive change in a short period of time.
Manny Yekutiel: Right. Think about Black Lives Matter, think about the Dakota pipeline, think about police brutality.
Sam Altman: So that’s great.
But they don’t have a voice because they don’t own it just because the ... See, this is the lie ...
Sam Altman: But it’s catalyzing action.
It sort of is, but it’s owned by the same people. I mean, we just did a piece on Recode where we just ... A couple years ago, I did a piece called “The Men and No Women of Facebook,” and I just put up their pictures. And it was like white guy, white guy, white guy, Asian guy, Indian guy, white guy. Like that was the whole thing. And at the time, either Mark or someone called and said, “That’s really unfair,” and I said, “You hired them. I didn’t. I’m just putting up their pictures for people to see.”
But recently, we did another one when they did a reorg of Facebook ... I don’t mean to pick on Facebook particularly because every tech company’s like this. We put all the pictures and I think we said there’s more people named Jim here than there are women. Like it was something like that, and then we like ... And as for people of color, well, Kevin Systrom’s picture is in black and white. That’s the only difference. Like it was ridiculous; it was insanity that they have ... If you look at these management structures, the real ...
Black Lives Matters can talk, but they don’t run Facebook. These different groups can do things, but they don’t own Google.
Sam Altman: So hypothetical then: If tonight something changed and the people that ran these companies represented the actual public that are speaking out and being given a voice, what do you think would change in our politics?
It would be a much better internet, I can tell you that. I think it would be a quantumly better internet if there’s more voices at the table. How to change politics?
Sam Altman: I’m not arguing against the need for greater diversity in leadership. It seems to me that the echo chamber that civic discourse online is dirty, it’s difficult, it’s ad hominem, it’s not particularly productive, and my question is how does a more diverse top raise the level of discourse?
Because politics is about power. I don’t know if you ... I mean, that’s what I think it’s about; politics is about power, and who has it and who doesn’t have it, and who’s allowed to wield it and do things. And these jobs have very real-world implications, and so the people that are in power ... Oh, who’s yelling? That’s nice. The people that are in power matter and the people that are empowered matter, and that includes the ownership of these companies and also who’s running them. I think better ... I mean, look at Y Combinator; you’re making enormous efforts to try to diversify the pool, correct?
Sam Altman: Certainly, and diversifying our partnership has absolutely reflected in a more diverse set of founders. So I believe this works, I really do. I do think it’s somewhat separate from ... It’s not the only way to make these platforms work better. I mean, government regulation about how we handle discourse, and online harassment, and what you’re allowed to say and not say, I think is another way to do it. And I personally will always be more comfortable with that than a small group of people, no matter what they look like, that are in absolute power forever and unfireable making these decisions.
Manny Yekutiel: So let’s talk about power for a second. Another reason why I wanted to bring the two of you together is we’re all friends and both of you independently came to me and said, you know, “I’m thinking about running for political office,” separate from each other. I think you were ... Can I say? You were considering maybe running for ... Lightly, okay. We talked about it, about running for governor of California, and you and I talked about running for mayor of San Francisco. And I was like, “Awesome, let’s ... How can I help or what would you like to talk about?” So tell me a little bit about why you were thinking about running for office and why you chose not to.
Sam Altman: I was thinking about it because I think the state is in a very bad place, particularly when it comes to the cost of living and specifically the cost of housing. And if that doesn’t get fixed, I think the state is going to devolve into a very unpleasant place. Like one thing that I have really come to believe is that you cannot have social justice without economic justice, and economic justice in California feels unattainable. And I think it would take someone with no loyalties to sort of very powerful interest groups. I would not be indebted to other groups, and so maybe I could try a couple of variable things, just on this issue.
So you’re like Bloomberg without an obsession with Coca-Cola, right?
Sam Altman: I don’t know he has an obsession with Coca-Cola.
Hello, Big Gulp?
Sam Altman: The reason I didn’t, or the reasons I didn’t ...
Manny Yekutiel: This talk brought to you by Coca-Cola.
Sam Altman: I don’t think I’d have enough experience to do it, because maybe I could do like a few things that would be really good, but I wouldn’t know how to deal with the thousands of things that also just needed to happen.
And more importantly than that to me personally, I wanted to spend my time trying to make sure we get artificial intelligence built in a really good way, which I think is like, to me personally, the most important problem in the world and not something I was willing to set aside to run for office.
Manny Yekutiel: What about you, Kara?
I just wanted unmitigated power to screw people.
Sam Altman: I love the honesty.
Yeah, it’s true. I’d have like limousines idling in front of my house, things like that. And then I would want to get like thrown out of office in a really dramatic fashion; “Fuck you, I’ll get you back!” That’s what I wanted. That’s why.
Manny Yekutiel: So why didn’t you do it?
I don’t know, it’s just next. You know, it’s like in Valley of the Dolls, I’d be like Neely O’Hara; like “All of you fuckers.”
So no, I wanted ... Because I was complaining too much and I thought, “This is ridiculous. I shouldn’t complain, I should do something.” It was very simple. And you know, after the Trump election, I thought if this idiot can get elected, I could get elected. Really, like it was things ... The brakes were off for people; something had changed with him. If I can pay him a small compliment, that’s the smallest I’ll give him, is that the brakes were off for people that could ... The way politics ... He’s unhinged everything, which is not necessarily a bad thing. He happens to be a bad thing, but that ...
Sam Altman: But that’s a good thing, I think.
Yes, I do too. I do too.
Manny Yekutiel: Yeah, we saw in this recent election all these people that never would’ve run beforehand. You know, I built this space; because of it, there’s millions of people that are changing the way they think about their interaction with the body politic because of that election.
Yeah. So I thought that that was ... I think it was a similar thing. And now, of course, now that fantastic squad of ladies that’s run by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ... She’s the head of it, it looks like, and they’ve got a squad of them. I want to join that squad now, so I have to run for Congress. Like I figured they’ll let the old white lady in; like, “Let her in. Let’s have her for humor.”
But I thought about that. I thought about, you know, that this is a city, I’ve lived here for 20 ... A long time, and that it was important to instead of just complain about things, to do something about it. Now we have a new mayor, so no one thought that the former mayor would die like that, and they’ve got ... You should give this mayor a chance. I think it’s really important not just to be difficult to run.
Manny Yekutiel: So we’re gonna ask like one or two more questions and then we’re gonna open up to open Q&A.
We’re gonna take a quick break now. We’ll be back to this live interview with Y Combinator President Sam Altman after this.
Manny Yekutiel: Okay, here’s what’s gonna happen: I’m gonna ask you guys each individual questions and then I’m gonna ask kind of a final question. So your first op-ed in the New York Times was entitled “Mark Zuckerberg and the Expensive ...”
“The Expensive Education of Mark Zuckerberg.”
Manny Yekutiel: And Silicon Valley.
And I meant for the rest of us, not for him.
Manny Yekutiel: Has he learned?
No. I wouldn’t say so.
Manny Yekutiel: Will he?
Oh, he’s a nice man, you know what I mean? Like he’s a very ... As Sam knows, he’s a nice guy; he’s really a ... And it’s the same thing, he’s personally nice, but he’s causing enormous damage.
I think one of the things, if you listen to that podcast ... Everyone focused on the Holocaust deniers part where he said essentially they don’t mean to lie, and I was like they do mean to lie; they mean to lie a lot. And so that was, to me, an insane thing to say, but that got a lot of the attention. That essentially was Mark Zuckerberg should never get on a stage with me ever again in his life, because last time he almost sweated to death and then this time he defended Holocaust deniers. That was nice.
Manny Yekutiel: Yeah, two out of two right there.
I know. How do I get him to say things like that?
Anyway, so the exchange I was most disturbed by, and I’ve written about it since in the Times, was when I kept pressing him on the impact of his inventions on Myanmar and India; that they had made these pretty sloppy rules in these countries and these products were not thought out properly, and they weren’t introduced properly, and they didn’t have the proper people in place to manage it, and it created ... People died, and that how did he feel about that?
And so, “How did you feel about that, that you made this badly and there was real-life consequences?” And instead of ... What he said was, he goes, “What I’m really interested in is solutions. Solutions are what I like to do. Like I think we should just get in and fix the situation” — “we” again. “We should fix the situation.” And I was like, “Yeah, I got that, but you caused the problem, so how do you feel about what you caused?” And so six times I asked him the same question, six times. And I said, “Yeah, but I want to know how you think about it.”
Sam Altman: But don’t you think that ... I mean, if I was in his shoes and I had billions of people all like ... I’ve had all these things weighing on my shoulders. How could he start to let that affect his emotional strength? Because he wouldn’t be able to make it through the day otherwise.
Because he took the money and the job. I’m sorry. He’s an adult. I don’t mean to be rude, but like, stop treating him like he’s a juvenile and like oh my goodness, this poor hoodie-cladden boy; it’s so hard for him. Like, my kids can take more pressure than he can.
But nonetheless, he kept ... I asked him six times, it went on for a while because it got really uncomfortable, and he kept saying, “We’ve gotta fix the solution.” I said, “Yeah, but you caused the problem. How do you feel about it? How do you feel about it? How do you feel about it? People died.” And he finally got exasperated because I’d done it so many times, and I did that on purpose, and he goes, “What do you want me to say?” I said, “How about starting off with, ‘I’m really sorry what I did caused people to die.’” That would be like the human reaction, right? That’s the first answer. And then secondly, I’d wonder if I was capable of handling this thing and if I’m the right person to do this, because it does have real-world implications.
And then I asked who should be fired for this, who should be fired? And you know, he hummed and hawed, and he goes, “I guess me because I’m the CEO and the founder, and I own and control it, and I’m the chairman.” And he goes, “Well, do you want me to fire myself?” and I said, “That would be fine.” You know what I mean? Like I’m just saying, I just want them to understand the implications.
Sam Altman: But would that actually solve the problem? If Mark Zuckerberg went to Hawaii and was like, “Okay, bye guys. I’m done.” Like we still have billions of people ... Like here’s the thing, he posted on Facebook and I’ve looked recently on his posts. It doesn’t matter what he posts about, you then have tens of thousands of people attacking each other about Brett Kavanaugh, Palestine, sexual assault, whatever. And it’s just like this whirlpool of hate, that sure, he’s the one that starts the whirlpool, but if he was replaced by someone else, wouldn’t people still be ...
I don’t know. I don’t know. I think he needs help. I think they need big-time help there with a lot of people who have more global viewpoints, that maybe are not living in the bubble of Palo Alto, that have a bigger idea of things, that understand ethical issues, that ... These are ethical, societal, philosophical issues, and these are people, if you know them, are lovely people, but ill-equipped to deal with them, I think.
Sam Altman: I want to say something. Before I do it, I want to make two points for clarity. One is I think it’s a real shame that he didn’t start that with “I’m sorry,” which seems the obvious human reaction and what anyone would want from a leader in that situation. I have the feeling he felt it and I think there’s sometimes such an adversarial relationship between people under siege and people asking them questions that maybe you don’t feel like you can express it, but I wish he had done that and I want to believe that’s what he felt.
The second thing is I wanna be clear that I do think we need to adapt these platforms and their rules and how we use them much faster. It turns out when you give everyone a voice, you get great and terrible behavior from that and it’s easy in stories to always categorize people and we as humans like the stories where people are either clearly the hero or clearly the villain. And unfortunately it’s almost never the case. There’s good and evil in everybody and everything, but I do think we need to get addressed, as you said people are dying and we need to address that much faster and with more seriousness than we have been. And I believe we can, although I believe that’s going to take work that we’re not currently doing. But I think it’s easy to talk about how people are dying. And I think it’s important to talk about how people are living too.
I grew up gay in the Midwest in the ’90s and early 2000s. And that was sort of not very good, and I think without the internet I will honestly say I’m not sure I would have made it through that. That was ... transformed me personally, I think it’s been transformative, the acceptance of gay people in the world. And I think you can say that for many other groups that have been oppressed with no voice for a long time. I have no doubt that many people have lived because of Facebook as well.
I get that argument. But it’s how they’re building the structure. Nicole Wong who used to work for Twitter and Google, fantastic, smart person. She was a lawyer for them. We did an amazing interview where she talked about the pillars you build these things on. And originally, for example, the pillar for Google was context, authenticity, authentic and something else. You pick the choices you make to build the structure you’re making.
What Facebook has been built on, for example, I’m just using Facebook because it’s the biggest, and Twitter is its own cesspool of mess, but actually is kind of fun in a lot of ways. Today was really fun for some reason, there was all kinds of weird names on there. But, you build it on certain things, so what Facebook has been built on is virality, speed and engagement. When you build it on those premises, guess what you get? Precisely what you get. You get fake news, you get hatred. If you build it around community, context, authentic connections, that’s a very different business. But guess what? It’s not as lucrative a business.
Sam Altman: Look, it deeply troubles me, and I think it should deeply trouble everyone that these companies have teams of people that figure out how to exploit our dopamine systems. And you get what you get. You get what you expect to get out of that.
I do think, though, that there is more good than bad that comes from this. If I could push a button and make all the Facebook products disappear, I wouldn’t. Twitter maybe. Facebook, I’m joking about that. I do think that the value that we’ve gotten, and again we need to adapt. It’s happened much faster than I think human society has been able to adapt, or so far we’ve been able to adapt to. But I think there’s incredible good that’s easy to get lost in the discussion.
Manny Yekutiel: So based on your comments, you guys are both leaders, you’re thinking of the future. You’re talking to the people who are at the core of this. Based on those conversations, and you’re reading the tea leaves, where do you see this going? Are we on the edge of a precipice and it’s just going to get worse? Or are people really waking up to some of the issues with these tools and are taking really serious concrete steps to solving them?
I wish I could say that, but a lot of the stuff that’s out of Facebook right now is we’re the victims here. I’ve never seen, it’s insane that reaction. It’s fascinating. It’s really interesting contrast to the Google people around the sexual harassment. The employees actually said wait a second, this is not how we want to run a company. Which was interesting. The Facebook employees are more, I call them docile. But they are. They’re docile. They must feed them Soma in the bread or something like that. In the artisanal ...
Manny Yekutiel: What is that?
It’s from a book called “1984.”
Sam Altman: “Brave New World,” isn’t it?
Manny Yekutiel: Kara, we’re on television right now.
But it’s a book.
Manny Yekutiel: National television.
But it’s a book you should have read.
Manny Yekutiel: I went to yeshiva, we weren’t allowed to read that.
I should run Facebook because I’ve read “1984” and I understand the implications of dictatorship.
Sam Altman: It’s from “1984” or “Brave New World”?
Manny Yekutiel: That’s what this is all about you just want to ...
Audience member: “Brave New World.”
Sam Altman: Yeah, close enough.
Manny Yekutiel: Wait a second.
I’m sorry, “Brave New World,” not “1984,” George Orwell. Oh my God. No wait, you’re right. We read them, it was ninth grade, we read ‘em all, we read ‘em all. But in any case, I’m sorry. They ... what was your point?
Manny Yekutiel: I don’t know. I’m embarrassed now.
If there’s anything to happen. Is there anything gonna, in the future.
Manny Yekutiel: I will say ...
I think Congress is going to insert itself, and the fact that Lindsey Graham is going to have any say over this is disturbing. I think it’s bad. These people in Congress, I’ve spent a lot of time in Washington, been visiting them. There are a few senators, Senator Warner, Senator Klobuchar, most of the senators, Senator Burr, Senator Bennet. There’s a couple that are pretty intelligent. Senator Wyden. Who else? You know them better than I do. Congressman anybody.
Sam Altman: I just maybe less that I think highly of than you. Some good ones.
Right, I know, but I’m just saying.
Sam Altman: Look, I think we’re going to get this resolved, but I don’t ... but I think we’ve actually lost sight of what’s really important. I think we are living on an exponential curve of technology, and the rate of changes has been increasing every year, every decade, it’s going to keep changing. And what we are in right now, which feels like the most important and most difficult technological issue we will ever face, will turn out to be nothing but a warm-up drill for the stuff that we’re going to be dealing with in the next, five, then next 10, years.
And so I think this, that seems like this absolute meltdown, there can be nothing more important, nothing harder, we are going to look back at this with fondness in the way that we look back at previous presidents now and be like whenever when life was so simple. But the next round of issues are going to be like, what does it mean when anyone can edit anyone else’s genome? What does it mean when we have artificial intelligence that is smarter than humans in every way? These, I promise, these are going to make the issues of today look like trifles that we wish we had to deal with again.
I think he’s right. It’s AI, robotics, changes in transportation, gene, things around genes and DNA. These are, it’s about to come, is really frightening in terms of who determines these things and the impact it has on society, for sure.
Sam Altman: The thing that’s always hard about exponential curves is when you look backwards they look flat and when you look forwards they look vertical. And you kind of only sense your own relative pace of progress so it always feels like the most important thing ever, and in that sense it’s always true.
But if you don’t look forward, if we get totally mired down in this stuff that’s happening right now and we miss these questions, they really get to fundamental questions about what is the future of humanity going to look like? What does it mean to be human? What is the world going to look like in 30 years, which is unrecognizably different, and that part I’m confident about. I’m confident we’ll adjust the current issues, I’m not at all confident we’ll be able to address the future ones.
And then sensors and surveillance too. What does a Chinese-driven internet look like, and those kinds of things. It’s a really interesting question.
Manny Yekutiel: Lordy, lordy, lord. Goodness.
Lordy, lordy, lord. It’s hard to think about because he’s right. The surveillance stuff that’s coming. The sensors, the stuff you put in our bodies and things like that ... the altering of your own bodies, it’s really big stuff.
Manny Yekutiel: You’re speaking to a packed house here in San Francisco and also the American public on CSPAN and you have OpenAI and you’re both very involved in these questions. Is there anything we can do right now, other than just sit and wait for this technology to be developed and then hope it doesn’t destroy us? What can we actually do?
Not watch “Black Mirror.”
Sam Altman: Actually, I think sci-fi is really important to watch.
Not the pig one. I’ll never unsee that one.
Manny Yekutiel: I didn’t see the pig one.
Oh, don’t see the pig one.
Manny Yekutiel: Okay.
Don’t see the pig one.
Sam Altman: In terms of what we can do, I think people can participate, people can get involved. Kara talked about how tech companies’ leadership is overwhelmingly male and that’s true. But the most skewed field I know of right now is machine learning PhDs, which are by graduation rates, 98, 99 percent men. And that is the group of people, in my opinion, I may turn out to be wrong, that will have the most effect on the future of the world that we live in.
And what we can do is get involved. We can encourage a much broader, a much more diverse group of people to go into that field, and into other fields as well. We can start societal conversations now, before we’re reacting from the other side like we are from how social media gets used. We can start conversations now about what decision should we make, what do we want society to look like. Before we actually make all these changes, are we sure they’re good, are we sure they’re bad, which ones should we try to stop, which ones should we do more of?
But I don’t know how to do that because I think society is very good at reacting to yesterday’s problems and very bad at investing a huge amount of time and energy and thought into the problems that will occur in 10 years.
Manny Yekutiel: But Sam, aren’t you the chair of OpenAI, aren’t you the person that’s supposed to be thinking of ...
Sam Altman: Oh, I’m trying to. The question is what can other people do? I’m trying to make that my major focus. That’s why I’m not running for governor.
I’m going to Mars with Elon Musk, that’s my job.
Manny Yekutiel: That does not sound very fun.
Are you kidding? He’s so much fun. What are you talking about? Elon Musk is the most fun, correct?
Sam Altman: Elon is very fun.
He’s very fun.
Manny Yekutiel: Okay we’ve now veered off topic.
Sam Altman: Maybe I’ll change that to the best interview in tech for my other answer.
Yeah, he is one of them.
Manny Yekutiel: Okay, so I think it’s time. We’re going to open it up to audience questions. I just got a cramp in my leg. Ow. Okay, so here’s how it’s going to work, oh we have hands already, that’s great. So we have a wireless mic and I’m going to point to you and then we’re going to hand you the wireless mic. Better to ask a specific question to one or the other because that way we get more questions, so if you have a specific question for someone please let them know who it is, and then please pass the mic back up, okay? We’ve got one mic. Also, also, also, please say your name and stand up. First question is going to be over there, so let’s pass this mic down, yeah, you right over here.
Aurora: Hi, my name is Aurora Quinn Elmer, I’m doing work helping communities and organizations figure out how to definitively and effectively deal with sexual predators when they’re identified, with the possibility of applying restorative justice when that’s appropriate. Particularly for lower-level offenses or miscommunications. I’m curious to hear from both of you how you would like to see us shift how we respond to accusations in the #MeToo era. I think we haven’t quite sorted that out yet, as far as I can tell.
Oh, you take that one. We are reaching a really interesting point now in the #MeToo stuff. There’s still these astonishing stories, I don’t know if you read the Les Moonves ones in the New York Times today. You should, it’s disturbing. Although it’s kind of low-level corruption on his part, the way he’s trying to cover up in order to get the money that he wants.
It’s a big question because these stories go around the world so quickly. Everything gets amplified so quickly and then people get exhausted by the amount of discussion. And what’s really critically important is the people, women, especially women, should have voices and be heard. The stories should be heard.
And I think one of the things that we did when we covered the Ellen Pao trial, which I think we were pretty good on at Recode, one of things that I did as an editor is I decided to cover it, I hate to use this comparison, like the Super Bowl. And we had five stories a day on it, and we decided just to put a lot of attention on it. We had two reporters on it, two great reporters. And we covered the hell out of it in lots of different aspects.
Sam Altman: You live-blogged it, it was sentence by sentence.
Yeah, we did. We did everything because we thought it was an important intersection of sexism, fucked-up VC-ness that everybody knows about and everybody writes about and power and money and influence and stuff like that. One of the problems is when you have things like Twitter or whatever, things just ... it exhausts people, so then it becomes noisy and then the real point is never, you can’t have a substantive discussion about problems and everybody feels in a crouch position and doesn’t know what to do.
Legitimate stories, everyone gets ... men get I can’t say anything. Women now want to talk a lot and about it, but then there’s so many different stories, then you’ve got the cable stations doing different things and it becomes sort of circus. It’s really hard in this era not to be twitchy, right? In terms of what you’re doing. So it’s really hard to know how you substantively make changes. My feeling is again, the issue is systems. The system is broken in a way that doesn’t allow, it’s broken against certain people, that certain people stay in power, and those people like to stay in power and they’re not going to give it up willingly. How do you change the systems at their very core is really the super difficult problem from my perspective.
Sam Altman: The area where I have the most expertise on this is not about lower-income, lower-status women, but female founders in the YC portfolio. I think there’s still a hugely long way to go there. And I think, my new belief about how that problem is actually starting to get solved is the LPs that give VCs their money to invest. Now that they have decided to demand reporting and transparency on this, I think that’s the first time where I’m actually seeing the industry take this sufficiently seriously.
I have sort of an unusual perspective on this whole thing because I was both, harassed as a founder 15 years ago, and it wasn’t that bad, but it’s always stuck in memory. And I’m friends with a lot of powerful men in VC who are on the other side of this. So I feel I see both sides of it now.
At this point a very common complaint from YCs female founders is that male VCs will not engage with them in anything other than a conference room during the day with the door open with people in there. And that is a huge disservice to women in technology. And how that gets fixed, I mean I hear about it and I understand why people have the risk profile they do. And when I say, “Just don’t be an asshole and you’ll be fine 99 percent of the time,” people say, “Well what about that one percent? I’m not going to take that risk.” But the current state there, it’s clearly better than women being harassed but it’s deeply unfair to women. And I don’t know how you turn that around.
Although, part of it is so funny because ... I’ve had people say that to me, it’s like what if someone says anything. Well don’t grab their ass, how bout that? Let’s start with that. Don’t kiss them. Don’t ask them out on date. Those are like, I’ll make a list for you, don’t do these things.
Sam Altman: To be clear, I’m on your side of this, I’m just saying I don’t know how to make it happen.
I know, but it’s such a vast overreaction by men to this. It’s crazy. Women don’t go around doing this all day. We manage to control ourselves even though we want to grab you guys. Well I don’t, but.
Sam Altman: I was going to say.
You do, I don’t. Opposite. But, sorry ... but you know what I mean.
Sam Altman: I do.
When I hear that I literally want to take the glass and throw it at their head.
Sam Altman: I’m agreeing, I’m just saying this has become a huge problem.
But that’s the first reaction, is, “How does it affect me?” Versus, “Wow, this is a systematic problem throughout society and maybe I’m a cause.”
My son who is 13 is a champion debater and he goes, “Mom, what about men who get harassed?” And I was like, “What?” And he goes, “There are men that get harassed.” I go, “One percent.” And he’s like, “Yeah let’s talk about that.” I’m like, “Why? Why don’t we talk about the 99 percent? So we end up having this amazing debate about it, but to me it’s really interesting how he goes there. That’s where he goes, versus the 99 percent. I don’t send him to his room for that or anything like that. But it’s interesting. I don’t know how you ... just stop it. Just stop it. I don’t know what else to say.
Manny Yekutiel: We can continue, or we can move to the next question. To the left, you have the mic.
Joelle Stewart: Hi, my name is Joelle Stewart and this question is for the would-be mayor, Kara Swisher. I am wondering about the real world ... I think what we don’t interrogate enough is the real world impacts of a lot of these tech platforms, not just in the sense of these mass genocides that are caused by some unnamed technology platforms, but for example the demographics of this room would not look the way that it does without the employment practices of the companies that we live around, let’s be real. I live in San Francisco, and am I the only black person here? Oh maybe there’s, oh hey, all right. All right, there’s a few of us, but not as many as there were probably 15 years ago.
And so in light of things like Amazon going to Long Island city and Sidewalk Labs, the Google experiment that deigns to create a whole city, spoiler alert, I’m an urban planner so I’m really curious about this and your take on how these platforms and companies wielding their employment power and their economic power effects cities and how things can be a little bit different. It’s very weird that the employment patterns are reflected so heavily in cities. Blah, blah, blah. You know what I mean, so I’m wondering what you think about it. Thanks.
That’s a big question. I think what you’re asking about is how we get, I believe, how do we get more diversity involved in this thing. Or to create cities that are less pushed apart by money, by race, by all kinds of things, correct?
Joelle Stewart: I’m wondering how to do we connect those two. Because I think that in San Francisco at least, it’s very desperate. People think oh my company is totally white, and the city is totally white and what coincidence, but it’s really connected.
100 percent. Again, it goes to this thoughtlessness, how did this happen. And they act like it just happened. Years ago, and I tell this story a lot. I wrote a story, I’m not a city planner, what’s happened around cities is a lot to do with city planning, you know how segregation happens, it’s very clear. And in this city it’s about money, who can afford to live here? And then who they hire who then can afford to live here. They don’t see the connections between things and connections are very hard for a lot of these people who run these companies to make. They really can’t make connections of why this happens here or why, the way Hollywood people couldn’t connect why the way they depict women affected misogyny. It was really interesting thing today on Twitter, who was it? Was it Claire Danes, or someone was talking about what’s-her-name’s bikini.
Audience member: Natalie Portman.
Yes, Natalie Portman.
Manny Yekutiel: Someone’s on Twitter here.
Well Twitter was good today. It was an interesting debate. Jessica Simpson, she was just making a comment as a teenage girl. It was really an interesting, you should go look at it. But I’m getting off the topic.
I think the way they hire, years ago I wrote a story called, besides the men and the women of Facebook, I like to drop these things down every and then, was the board of Twitter. It was 10 white men of the same age almost, like exactly the same. You could have just, I didn’t know them all apart from each other. And I called the CEO Dick Costolo, who’s great. He’s a great guy, and I said, “How did you get 10 of the same exact white men on the board?” He goes, “I don’t know, it just happened.”
And I was like, “It couldn’t happen, that’s mathematically impossible, like how did that happen?” And so I wrote a story and I believe, I literally think I should have quit after I wrote this lead. I said, “The board of Twitter which has three Peters and a Dick,” which was so good. I should have gone done, and I’m gone. I had a really interesting discussion about it, he thought it just had happened that way. And what was fascinating to me ...
Manny Yekutiel: Really?
Yes. He really did. Honestly. It was interesting, and he did and other people did it when I went to question him is like, “Well you know Kara, we have standards.” That’s the word they use. I said, “It’s really interesting that you always use the word standards when it comes to adding women or people of color to a board, but you never do it when it’s 10 white men, who by the way are driving your company into a wall, just so you know, Twitter’s not doing very well.” You know what I mean? Or Yahoo, or any of them. Standards is only applied to people who are trying to get in. It’s that kind of stuff.
So I can’t tell you about cities, but I do think these decisions are made purposely and they pretend ... unconscious bias, it’s very conscious as far as I can tell, or thoughtlessness. I think we need thoughtful politicians who say, look, like the NIMBY/YIMBY thing, just call it out. Look yYou’re going to put people with different economic and racial — in different places all throughout the city, everyone’s going to do. You’ve got to have leaders that do that and that’s really, I think, the problem, is that they don’t do that.
At these companies you’ve got to have leaders that say, “I have 70 percent white guys running this places, I need to change this. I can’t look at it like I’m dropping standards.” You know what I mean? It can’t be looked at like that, because that’s the way they see it in their brain, that it’s a favor rather than an asset. Do you have a thought on it? How do you solve city problems and racism?
Sam Altman: I also feel unqualified to opine on that. But other than, I think, the data is really clear that making housing affordable is a hugely beneficial thing to people that are younger or disenfranchised in any way. And I think San Francisco had a catastrophic failure to do that.
Manny Yekutiel: So we have a question to the right here. You in the white sweater, but do you mind coming over here away from the speaker because it’s going to do that crazy loud whale noise thing. Yep.
Peggy: Hi, I’m Peggy. I wanted to change the topic to the politicization of data and who owns your data. And so we all subscribe to these social platforms and how who owns our attention, right? And how that might change antitrust laws or the definition of monopoly and I’m interested to hear both your thoughts on that.
Manny Yekutiel: Thank you.
Sam Altman: I mean, I think you own your data and people agree on that. The hard part is at the internet giants, their network effects or monopolies or whatever coded word you want to use for the fact you can’t pick an alternative. If all your friends are on Instagram, you’re going to be on Instagram. And so, what true ownership of data would mean, if you stop liking Instagram’s rule you could go somewhere else and have a good experience, but you don’t really have an option to do that.
And I think that’s what the current consumer data protection laws and the antitrust laws and just more general consumer protection laws fail to take into account. Is that ... people say, if you don’t like Facebook, just don’t use any of Facebook’s products. It’s much easier said than done. And sure you can do it. And some people do. Does anyone in this room not use any Facebook product at least once a week. None? Truly none?
Manny Yekutiel: Honestly Sam, I feel like I’ve tried multiple times, I’ve deleted the fucking app. I’ve turned by phone to black and white, I’ve really tried to get off it and I feel like I actually chemically cannot do it.
Sam Altman: Right.
No, Facebook is a bloated app that is exhausting.
Sam Altman: But you don’t use Instagram, WhatsApp, nothing?
No, Instagram is a museum of people’s performative bullshit. And Oculus, I kind of like VR. I kind of like VR.
Manny Yekutiel: But you use it, honey, don’t you? Sorry, Kara.
What, Instagram? No, I’m not on Instagram.
Manny Yekutiel: Okay, you’re on Twitter all day. There’s better or worse.
Twitter I like because it’s a cesspool.
Sam Altman: My point is, I think the data question is easier than, less important than how do we actually have consumer choice in a world where we have these monopolies that are bigger than AT&T at the peak of it. And I think that’s what’s getting lost in the conversation because it’s so hard no ones willing to actually talk about it.
I think they’re going to be broken up. I do. I think there’s going to be some regulatory ... It’s going to be really interesting around antitrust, there’s some really interesting legal theories going around about all of it. But I think the amount of data that these companies have on you and how they collect it is ...
Manny Yekutiel: So what does that mean, you literally use Twitter with this half of the room, but not the people on this half of the room?
I don’t know, well, they’ve done it before. It’s happened before, so I don’t know. I think probably that’s where it’s going to go. If I had to guess, very similar to what everyone said, “Who could affect Microsoft?” and then bingo, they affected Microsoft. So I think there’s going to be some sort of regulatory relief because these companies can’t resist their Borg-like tendencies to want to suck up every piece of information.
Peggy: But who is there defining...
I think if the Democrats get in power, used to be friends of tech. They’re not so friendly to tech anymore. I can tell you from visiting them. I think you’ve got a lot of people in the Democratic Party who now are pretty pissed about what happened and have some thoughts on that.
Manny Yekutiel: Okay, we have a question all the way in the back. Yes, you. I know you’re surprised. All the way in the back. Do you want to just get up and project? Yeah, let’s do that. Just say your name and please project.
Louisa: Yeah, my name is Louisa. My question is for Sam. It’s about how you think about preventing AI from ending civilization in general and how you think about that in terms of domestic versus what seems to be an arms race between us and China.
Sam Altman: To say this extremely clearly, we will, I can’t promise when, I can’t even make a confident prediction if I want. But we will, we, humanity will at some point build digital intelligence that surpasses human intelligence. People don’t think about that much because it’s so uncomfortable, and it’s so hard to say. That’s an event horizon. It’s just really hard to see what the world looks like on the other side. I think it really matters that it’s built in a way where the benefit of it is distributed widely throughout humanity and decisions about how we use it and how we build is distributed widely through humanity, not to make this a commercial for OpenAI, but I do genuinely think that’s super important.
I think we will be able to learn the collective human value system. I think there will be big arguments about what human values we should keep and what were bad and that we should let go and who gets to decide that and how we vote on it will be sort of, in some sense, the hardest problem humanity’s ever faced.
But I now believe in a way that I didn’t use to, or at least I used to not be as confident that the technological problems of how we build an AI, like a super AI that shares human values that align with the goals of humanity. I think that’s technically possible.
So that’s the good news. The bad news is I think the collective action, collective governance problem is going to be super hard. And I think this is, as we were saying earlier, society just ... evolution’s slower than technology? I think we’re going to have to ... We are likely going to have to react to this at a speed that we’re not good at. Which is why, I think, it’s important that the technology industry now try to get people thinking about this. And try to figure out the world that we want to collectively build.
But Sam, you know who has hired most of the AI in machine learning? What are the two companies that control most of it right now?
Sam Altman: I’d say that OpenAI put out half the most important results in the year, something like that. And we’re only 80 people. One of the things that is cool about this.
But the two companies that are really hiring heavily are Google and Facebook.
Sam Altman: The most number of people. But one of the things that’s cool about this and one of the things that’s magical about software is if you have people that are like a little bit smarter or a little better mission and a little bit better plan, just like startups always can, you can beat a company that has tens or hundreds of thousands of people. I think that’s always true about software. And it’s exponentially true about artificial intelligence.
So I think looking at the number of people that companies have is the wrong way to think about it. I think looking at sort of maybe number of transistors under the control of the company will turn out to be the right way to think about it.
Manny Yekutiel: Just a quick follow-up for you, Sam. What do you think specifically is the role of the 500, 600 or some elected federal officials that have just been brought into government to do to kind of steer the conversation, right? ‘Cause if you’ve been elected to the 2018 Congress and this is something that you cared about, what is the role of those people?
Sam Altman: The tricky balance is there’s two very different ways that this is really important. One is the changes that it’s going to have into the economy and jobs in the next few years. And that’s a huge issue and that’s what’s affecting your constituents today. And that’s where people are going to feel pain today and next year and the year after.
And then there are the questions about how is this going to fundamentally reshape the world in 20 years, 30 years. And how you as a politician prioritize and balance those two things, which they’re both about AI but other than that they’re actually totally different, are very hard. And I think our system, especially with Congress on a two-year cycle, even the presidency on a four-year cycle, is going to do a much better job at the first. I actually think we’re going to get that right. I think we’re gonna figure out how to deal with that.
But how we kind of like pick this long-term future, I think that’s going to take courage and sort of force that in a politician.
There’s nobody working on it. Let’s be clear.
Sam Altman: There’s nobody working on it.
I mean, right now we don’t have a chief science officer running the office of science. If we have an Ebola situation, we’re fucked. Like truly fucked. We don’t have a chief science person, we don’t have a chief technology officer. That whole area has been gutted out right now. It’s really quite a ... I mean, I think one guy, there’s one guy in there who is one of the deputy CTOs. He was in real estate before or something like that. He was. What’s his name?
Sam Altman: I don’t know.
Sam Altman: Michael Kratsios.
Whatever. Whatever. They were like, “Meet him.” I was like “No! I refuse. I’m not meeting a real estate guy to talk about tech.”
Manny Yekutiel: I think that I maybe, okay.
Or maybe you tried it?
Manny Yekutiel: All right, next question. Right over here.
We need more smart people.
Manny Yekutiel: You’ve got your hand raised for a while. Yeah, you! Yes, yeah!
Chris: I’m Chris. You have made mention before of being fatigued from news and that potential resource being repleted. Sam, you mentioned the exponential growth curve, I think a nod to the singularity. The Weinstein brothers make mention of the sense-making apparatus when referring to the news. And I think the disruption of the economics that publishing news today. When you believe are going to be the upcoming sense-making apparati of dealing with the increasing intentional load we’re going to see as our growth exponentially expands?
Manny Yekutiel: Does someone want to repeat that question?
I think he’s saying, how do we deal with all these screens. Is that right? Or something like that. The incoming. Yeah, the incoming.
Manny Yekutiel: How do we take in all the news?
I literally don’t wanna take a shower anymore because I’m like, “What happened? Wait what? We just declared war on France?” Like just on Twitter for five seconds and then it’s over. I don’t know. Sam, you’re ...?
Sam Altman: Well I think that’s a stressful and unhealthy way to live, personally ... And frankly very unhygienic of you.
I shower. I just have the phone in there with a baggy.
Sam Altman: And no, I think you need to give yourself permission to not follow every post, not read every news article. The things that cause outrage and that feel like ... There was probably something that happened in February of this year that this entire room was talking about all day long. And you were putting aside work, time that you could have spent with your family, your friends, your hobbies because this thing was so important. And you couldn’t shower because if you even were away from your computer for five minutes you were going to miss the conversation. And none of you remember what that is. And it’s okay to miss it.
I guess it was “shithole countries,” but go ahead.
Sam Altman: It’s okay to miss that.
No it’s not. You need not to miss that one.
Sam Altman: But there’s no way to stay informed and stay sane right now. There’s just no way to do it. Like I think we ... one of the things that is happening is everyone seems so fatigued and stressed and unhappy. And I wish I could just like ... we could all take a day off and go for walk in the woods. And the world is gonna keep spinning. There will be plenty of problems when we get back. We can read about them then. Like your job is to stay on top of this, so maybe you have to. But it’s not most people’s jobs.
No, but here’s the thing. I do think there is a push toward less twitchiness. That there’s more that ... You know, I’ve just noticed how fast our podcasts are growing. And when I started the Recode Decode podcast everyone was like, “Kara you can’t do it in an hour. People won’t listen an hour. They won’t like an hour. You need to do it 26 seconds.” And I was like, “No, I’m gonna do an hour.” And they’re like, “You can’t do an hour. You can’t do an hour.” And I’m like, “I think people like a substantive discussion. I like a substantive discussion. I’m just gonna keep talking.” And do an interview with someone for an hour so that they and they talk. Sam, you were on there.
Sam Altman: I was.
Yeah. And it was an hour discussion, right? And it changes the whole nature of it. And it’s only grown. So I do think there is some, there is something where the twitchiness, people are pushing away from it. And you can see it in entertainment. There are some really wonderful entertainment shows that take commitment and are interesting. And so I don’t necessarily know if we’re all, that we don’t push that away. It seems that people are pushing that away a little bit in terms of indicators that we’re getting from the stuff that people read on our sites.
Sam Altman: Can I share a quick story?
Manny Yekutiel: Oh my god, yes please!
Sam Altman: I was speaking to a very dear friend of mine and he came to see me for some life advice. And he said, “I’m trying to figure out what I want to do. I’ve spent the last 10 years on the internet. I have a” — and he does have one, for sure — “I have a very bad case of internet addiction. You” — he pointed to me — “have staged an intervention before. Other friends of mine have too. None of you have been able to make it work. And I realize that for 10 years I’ve been wasting my time on Twitter reading the news in online forums. And my partner left me. None of my jobs have worked out. And now I’m about to turn 40 and I don’t know what I wanna do with my life.”
And it was just that, and that’s all true. And it was just this gut-wrenching moment where I couldn’t tell him like, “Oh. It’s okay.” I’m like, “Yeah that really did happen.” And I think we’re gonna see this a lot more. ‘Cause there’s so much in the world and so much of it’s so bad. But it’s easy to get immobilized by it. And if it’s not your job to stay on top of everything that’s happening ... do less of it. You’ll still know a lot, and there will be plenty to be outraged about.
But like, read a ... One rule that I have for myself, that I’m trying to have for myself, is if I’m looking at a website and kind of like mindlessly doing it, and I hit, like, open a new tab and type in the same website again. Which I do more than I’d like to admit. I close the computer and I either have to go for a walk or read a physical book. And I’m not perfect about that. Sometimes I just keep going. But I’m trying to be better about that. Because I think it’s ... you know, we were talking, there are these dopamine systems. It’s deep in our biology to react to this and we haven’t had time to build up societal antibodies yet.
I think younger people are changing. I have to say my sons, they’re very good at putting it down. Much different. It’s a really interesting thing. I watch them. But they use it in a different way. It’s used for certain things. They just don’t use other things. Like I watched “Gilligan’s Island” till my head’ll fall off when I was a kid. Like you used to do things and then you’d switch them into other things. Being upset on the train — I was in New York and everyone was looking at their phones. And I was like, “Oh everyone is on their phones.” I made like I was grumpy in a way. But then I thought, well before everybody had a newspaper and was looking at a book. You know what I mean? No one was staring out into space on a subway.
Sam Altman: I remember being bored as like this abstract thought from a long time ago that I can barely hold on to. And I miss that.
Manny Yekutiel: I do too. I feel like, no offense, but I feel like we have seen in our lifetime, I actually don’t know how, but I remember.
Keep going. Dig.
Manny Yekutiel: Oh goddamn. I remember going home and being like, “Great, I get to go on the internet now!” And telling my mom to get off the phone so that I could log on to get on the internet. And it was this thing you could do for a special 30 minutes and the rest of the time you just had to figure out what to do. And now ... and in our lifetime I’ve seen now we’re always on the internet all the time. And I’m always nervous.
Sweetie, I was around when there were rotary phones so I don’t worry about the age thing. Like we had the [rotary phone noises], that kind of thing. So you know I think it’s just it depends on these things are built to be addictive. And that’s another thing. They hire tons and tons of people to addict you. And everybody knows that. And again, when we’re sitting around saying, “Oh they’re trying really hard.” They hired 20 PhDs to make you push that red button and they did that on purpose. And to pretend otherwise and then them to go, “Oh I don’t know why people are addicted”? When they’re handing you liquor.
Sam Altman: That is the thing that I think, I mean, it’s hard to pick one thing that tech companies have done the worst because they’re so many to pick on. But that one thing, the fact that they have figured out how to hack you in biology to make us unhappy I think is like, when history books are written it’s going to be like, “What the fuck? Did that actually happen?”
But it’s the same people that are doing the other stuff. That’s what I’m saying. To make them into like hapless victims of their own success is a mistake. They are purposely doing this with every choice they make. And then when it goes awry they’re like, “Who knew?”
Sam Altman: I think that you and I agree. And there’s plenty to be critical about. But I’m just trying to say that there’s also things I’m thankful for.
But again, I agree, but that’s not critical, it’s truthful. Like there’s a difference between ...
Sam Altman: Those are truthful and I think ...
But when you say bad things about them it’s like, “Don’t be so critical.” But I’m like, “I’m just pointing out that you’ve made billions of dollars off of other people’s privacy, off of other people’s attention, and taking advantage of other people’s stuff.” So I ... that’s all.
Sam Altman: And I agree. I’m pointing out that I think that and I also am glad that these companies exist. And I know that I may be in the minority in the room for that. But I think they’ve done great good for society too.
Manny Yekutiel: Shall we move on to the next question?
Manny Yekutiel: We have a question to the right. Over there.
Martha: Hi my name is Martha and I’m a founder and CEO of an early-stage political activism company and a former policy adviser so I think about these questions quite a bit, given some of the things you were saying about social media platforms being built for addictive behavior and consequences that are detrimental to our society as a whole. Even life-or-death situations. Do you think that Silicon Valley investors — not just business leaders but investors — have a responsibility to demand less revenue? When you think about, especially me, when I think about my business model and how much money we can make in five years, a lot of it is dependent on that kind of behavior. So do you think that we need to change our business model?
Yeah. I mean, I think that their business models are their business models. I don’t know, how would you change them? As Wall Street is Wall Street, right? How are you gonna do this? And they won’t change this. And just look at, I’ll switch it to another thing, the murder of this journalist Khashoggi. Do you know how many companies in Silicon Valley are funded by the Saudis? Are you seeing Uber handing the money back? I’m gonna be asking Dara Khosrowshahi that tomorrow. “Are you handing the money back?” He’s a murderous thug, according to Lindsey Graham, and if Lindsey Graham is saying it it’s absolutely true, right? You know? They’re not gonna do it. They’re not gonna do it.
Like there’s an expression, I think my ... someone told it to me, someone in my family was like, “You’re so poor. All you have is money.” And they don’t wanna change these business plans. They don’t wanna change the addictive ones. They don’t wanna change the data-sucking ones. They don’t wanna change the advertising ones. They don’t wanna change any of them. They just don’t. They don’t want to do it. They like the money. They like the power. They like everything. They just happen to wear Allbirds. That’s the only difference between them and a Wall Street mogul.
And at least the Wall Street moguls I prefer because they’re like, “We’re rapacious assholes.” And that’s the end of it. And you’re like, “All right. I get you. Let’s have a beer.”
But I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t think they’ll do it. I don’t think they’ll do it. But I just, I don’t know. Do you?
Sam Altman: I mean, look, this is easier for me to say because I don’t need more money, but I certainly won’t invest in companies that I will be successful but would be bad for the world. Sometimes I invest thinking it would be good for the world and I get it wrong. But I won’t go into it doing that. And I try not to let YC do that either. And I think that in the long run that does work and I think that it makes you more successful. We certainly tell companies that come to us in many specific instances like, “You could go build that product. You could do that service. You could sell to that customer and you would make more revenue. But you’d be compromising something more important. You shouldn’t do that.”
At OpenAI, when we wrote our charter we talked about the scenarios where we would or wouldn’t make money. And how just the things we wouldn’t be willing to do no matter how much money they made. And we made this public so the public would hold us accountable to that. And I think that’s really important. I think there are different investors that think differently. One thing that I have a lot of sympathy for is people who came from nothing, got a job at a company where they’re getting an incredible salary but the company is doing things that they don’t like or don’t fit their own ethical compass. And they’re not in the situation I’m in. And they really struggle with what the right answer do there is. And I’m not in their shoes now.
But with the Juul stuff. There are a lot of Silicon Valley people in that. How did you think about that?
Sam Altman: So the Juul one?
This is this vaping thing.
Sam Altman: This vaping thing?
This is the vaping thing you must keep away from a 16-year-old boy named Louie Swisher, but go ahead. I now have a vaping thing.
Sam Altman: I hadn’t looked into that.
I own one myself.
Sam Altman: In depth it seems really problematic. What someone told me, I haven’t researched this at all, but someone told me is that pure nicotine is actually not that bad for you. And that the science on that ... Yeah, I assume that’s right. So I haven’t studied ...
You may not have children right now, but go ahead.
Sam Altman: I haven’t studied it. It seems really problematic from what I know. I wouldn’t invest.
Because there would be a lot of people dead. That was, that should have been an obvious one for lots of people.
Manny Yekutiel: It’s almost eight o’clock so we have the last audience question. And I know there’s a lot of questions. There’s gonna be some time afterwards but right over here. Last audience question.
Hillary: Thank You. Hi. My name is Hillary and I ... So I’ve heard people talk about open crypto networks that present potentially open computing systems where maybe platforms like Facebook could be built in ways that shift the power and maybe the revenue model. Giving a little more power to users. And I was wondering what you guys think about that and the prospects there. For solving some of these problems that we’ve talked about.
Sam Altman: I so wanna see a single crypto project shipment actually get used. Then I will sort of stop dismissing them out of hand. But until that happens, I don’t think I can point ... I haven’t been working like super long but yeah a decently long chunk of time now, and I can’t point to any piece of technology that has had as much ... It has so captured the discussion of the industry with so little actual use. The amount of money that has gone into crypto projects that are somewhere in between incompetent and fraud, I have never seen in any other industry.
Well, the early internet.
Sam Altman: That one I didn’t see.
Sam Altman: I could believe that one’s worse.
Je was there. I was there. There were a lot of...
Sam Altman: Je.
Je. Me. That’s me in French.
Sam Altman: I got it.
I think I got that language right, right? Okay.
Sam Altman: So maybe we can say it’s the worst since then.
Well, there were a lot of like, there was a lot of scammery in the early internet. It really was. It was like crazy at the time.
Hillary: I’m sort of asking like, let’s suppose like in concept where we rule out all the scam.
What about just you getting paid for your privacy? Like you get to ... like years ago when I was writing a book about AOL, Steve Case got up in some investment commerce and said that we’re making $76 from each user. He had some number that he assigned to it. And I put my hand up, I said,”Can I have my $35 please?” And he’s like, “What?” And I’m like, “Why shouldn’t you pay me half that money and maybe I’ll give you more.” They never come up with that idea. Like just being paid for your ... it’s not like giving away your liver, I don’t think. But what do you want a ... should you be paid?
Sam Altman: The promise is so seductive and maybe it is a way to get around the issue of these unopen protocols that you’re on one now. That’s where everything is, you can’t leave. Maybe if Instagram was on some sort of blockchain, something or the other, you could leave in some sense. Or use another version of it.
But I think we’re learning something fundamental about human coordination and governance, where these de-essentialized projects so far are just not working. The promise is incredibly seductive. I hope it happens. The current ecosystem of the crypto, blockchain world seems, today, this may change. This may be like a burnout after the dot-com and then the Facebook rises later. But the system today seems unlikely to produce that. I really hope it gets there. And I really hope it does someday. The promise is tantalizing.
Manny Yekutiel: So the final question I have, which is something that I’ve been asking a lot of these panelists about is what is one thing that the people that are in this physical room right here can actually take away and do to address some of the issues that have been brought up in this conversation?
Sam Altman: You quit Facebook. I’m pretty impressed.
Quit it. I never used it. Just for work. I just use it for work until I understand it. Here’s the thing. If you’re employees of these companies, you are their base. Like I hate to use a Trump term, but you are their base. Listen to the Google Walkout Organizers podcast we did. I think it was six women and one man. It was astonishing. And they were astonishing, articulate, strong, still loving their jobs, but really said, “Enough.” And they also just didn’t want to talk about issues of sexual harassment around which the first thing started because they were paying someone $90,000,000 who had real issues to go, which is astonishing they did that.
If you’re employees of these companies, ask questions of these things. It is not disloyal to say, “Is this the way we’re doing it?” Because the premise of Silicon Valley, at least when I got here and this was the good part, was that it was changing the world, that it was better. Then they went on and on about how better they were. Now demand that they be better. You know, just demand. As employees, to me, you have the power to do that.
And that doesn’t mean dropping a dime to me or anybody else. Or fine, do that. I would like that. And it’s helped me a lot in that way. You have a part and a power with these people.
Manny Yekutiel: Someone you may have ...
You have power that you don’t understand that you can use and voices. And so I think it’s really important for you as employees or working here to say, “No.” Like, “No this is not gonna stand. This is not gonna stand.” And everyone who does that, you can affect them. You don’t need me to affect them. You don’t need powerful people to do it. You have that. And not saying like everyone is powerful but you really can, especially in this industry and these leaders are listening. I think they do it, and then they do get affected by these things. So that’s what I would say to do.
Sam Altman: I think that’s the most important point. I hadn’t thought of saying that but I will ... that’s what I think is the right answer. I think that it is employees that the companies that have more power than any other constituencies. That’s the group that these companies have to keep happy. And the challenge is it’s such a premium in this industry. And I do think that this industry is better then others at listening to employees and trying to adapt. That employees at the large tech companies have much much more power than they realize.
The other thing that I was going to say is just, I think it’s fine to spend most of your time thinking about the problems and the challenges of today, I think that’s really good. But if you believe that sort of you are living for the future and all the people that are going to come out after you, you got to at least allocate some to the problems of the future. And you’ve got to spend some of your time and your resources and your effort trying to think about not the problems of 2019 but of the problems of 2039. And it’s hard to do that without concerted effort because the problems of today are so big.
And so to me it’s about making choices. Like be an adult. I just like so many times when they’re ... I talk about juvenilization of men here is Silicon Valley. Or letting these people have a pass or whatever. Or just giving people passes. Like, act like an adult. Like what would an adult do. And not see that as a negative thing, you know what I mean?
Here it’s like oh, everyone’s young, or we have to have a young person, or that young mentality. Like there is something good about acquired wisdom. I’m only saying that because I’m 412. But it’s true. It’s not just a power to say no to these people, but it’s a power to say yes, this is the way we should go. You should be doing both things. You don’t want to be a hindrance, but you should say no appropriately and yes appropriately. And that’s what adult people do.
And take responsibility. That’s the other thing. Take responsibility for what you’re doing. And stop acting like the things you’re doing don’t have an impact because they absolutely do.
And get out across this country. And I don’t mean doing Mark Zuckerberg and visiting every cow in every fucking state. Like don’t do that, that’s bad. But get out to understand how people actually live their lives. Not a place where there’s hot and cold running kombucha. Like there are other places. There’s other places and it doesn’t mean that you aren’t as justifiable as they are ‘cause that’s really irritating too, to say the real Americans live here. Real Americans live everywhere. But do start to understand how other people live, paycheck to paycheck. They have hard times with healthcare and nutrition. And they have lots of stuff like that. To me that’s acting like an adult.
Sam Altman: Can I make one pleasant comment off of that? It’ll be fast. I think one thing that had gone wrong with the move into the internet is that we have evolved some biological protections for how we act with someone in person. And there’s most of the time, we have some compassion that just sort of happens when you’re with another person physically. Some level of politeness that often happens. Not always.
But on the internet that biological protection seems to have gone away and it’s so easy to just cast people as just the other. To cast people as stupid or Luddites or racists or just out of touch or drug addicts or whatever. And in my experience, I have found that my own preconceptions of people when I meet them on the internet or when they’re mean to me on the internet or I get in a fit with someone on Twitter, I’m always willing to think the worst. And if I meet them in person, I always find myself thinking the best. And I think this is something that has gone deeply wrong about the internet. And if you just get out and meet very different people with even a little bit of an open mind, your biology will take over a lot of the rest.
Manny Yekutiel: So I mean, first of all, and I have to say I don’t know if we could have planned this before but that is the perfect segue into why we built this space. Because the premise was that these conversations, some of them are much more productive to be had in person. And so I’m really honored deeply that both of you would take time out of your busy schedules to join us tonight, and be in conversation. And especially for flying here for this conversation. So a really big round of applause for Kara and Sam.
We’re doing things here every day, sometimes multiple times a day. If you’re interested in staying involved in this space the website’s Welcome to Manny’s. Please do spread the word. Feel free to tag us or search us online, Welcome to Manny’s. The goal of Manny’s, like I said, is to create a central, affordable and accessible place to become a better informed and more involved citizen. And with that, let us give our final thank you to Kara and Sam.
Sam Altman: Thank you for having us.
Thanks to Sam Altman for joining me onstage and to Manny’s in San Francisco for hosting us. I urge you go there, it’s on the corner on 16th and Valencia. Thanks for listening.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.