The Long Shadow of Steve Jobs Looms Over the Turmoil at OpenAI

Steve Jobs, driven by his genius and his gut, invented the iPhone and built Apple into the world’s most valuable company. He was uncompromising, larger than life and irreplaceable. His life was creating the future, which would be filled with devices controlled by their users.

Sam Altman spent the last year taking on the mantle of Mr. Jobs as the Silicon Valley entrepreneur in charge of tomorrow. It is the biggest job in Silicon Valley, and now the most difficult. As more people worry they will be controlled rather than in control, the future is fraught with danger.

Until Friday, Mr. Altman was the chief executive of OpenAI, the dominant artificial intelligence company. He promised A.I. would usher in humanity’s first golden age even though it came from the same kind of inventors who thought there was a market for internet-connected toasters.

Mr. Altman’s vague but vast ambitions got him in trouble with the board of OpenAI, which said he was “not consistently candid” in his communications and fired him. This shocked Silicon Valley, which did everything but march to the company’s San Francisco headquarters with pitchforks to demand Mr. Altman’s reinstatement. The future is abstract, but serious money was at risk.

The attempt at a reinstatement apparently failed — this is an ongoing saga — but the last few days deepened the parallels to Mr. Jobs, who was marginalized by the board of Apple in 1985. Apple was faltering, and Mr. Jobs was not exactly a model employee. He left the company of which he was a founder and the personal computer industry he championed.

Eleven years later, with Apple even worse off, Mr. Jobs returned. It was the greatest second act in American business history. Apple is now worth $3 trillion.

The career of Mr. Jobs, who died in 2011, presents tech founders with an enticing but perhaps impossible comparison. There are many clichés about Silicon Valley that Silicon Valley likes to believe are true, including “It’s not about the money” and “Move fast and break things” and “Three people are building something in a garage that will be the next Google.”

One of the most persistent clichés is that of the visionary founder — the executive who can reach into the future, break off a piece and make it into something that the masses adore. Do this right and your company will be worth a trillion dollars. Do it wrong and you have an overpriced toaster.

The legend of the visionary founder didn’t start with Mr. Jobs, but he pushed it to a new level. “He seemed to be able to see slightly beyond the horizon when other people couldn’t see beyond the end of their nose,” Michael Moritz, an Apple historian who later became a venture capitalist, told The New York Times in 1985.

It was a description Mr. Jobs himself came to embrace. “Some people say, ‘Give the customers what they want,’” he said, in one of most-quoted statements. “But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do.”

Mr. Jobs made it look easy. A little device that holds a thousand songs? Sold. But even with something as simple to understand as self-driving cars, what people are going to want is not quite clear.

As Mr. Altman was unsuccessfully negotiating Sunday to get his job back, the resignation of Kyle Vogt as chief executive of Cruise, General Motors’ self-driving-car division, was announced. His departure was prompted by a nightmarish sequence of events last month when a woman in San Francisco who had just been the victim of a hit-and-run was then run over by a Cruise robotaxi. Cruise’s license to operate in California was suspended after the accident.

Mr. Vogt was a co-founder of Cruise, which G.M. bought in 2016, and was a principal architect of its success in a once-crowded field of autonomous start-ups. His hard-charging ways are now a liability, which made his exit an inevitability. Self-driving advocates can argue that many more people are injured by human drivers than autonomous vehicles, but there is something deeply unsettling about a car that seems to go rogue.

Mr. Vogt was replaced by two G.M. insiders, one of them its general counsel. It was a pointed message: This is not a moment for visionary leaders.

For all the relentless exaltation of Mr. Altman over the weekend, the extravagant claims made by him and his former OpenAI colleagues will eventually have their own moment of reckoning. A.I. “is going to be the greatest force for economic empowerment and a lot of people getting rich we have ever seen,” he said in February. People are going to ask: Who is getting rich, exactly? Did I want this?

Before a version of ChatGPT was released to the public a year ago, Mr. Altman was largely unknown beyond Silicon Valley. He was an semi-successful entrepreneur who had run Y Combinator, the start-up incubator. He learned there that turmoil always lurked underneath a promising new company. “Start-ups on the inside are always badly broken,” he said.

Mr. Altman had the reputation of a swashbuckler. He wrote on his blog in 2017 that he felt more comfortable discussing controversial ideas in communist Beijing than in liberal San Francisco. Maybe he was thinking of the time in 2015 when he said at a conference that “A.I. will probably most likely lead to the end of the world, but in the meantime, there’ll be great companies.”

Are the world’s people going to get their eyeballs scanned in return for some fake currency and vague promises that their retinas will be used, somehow, someday, by someone to help prove they really exist? That was one of Mr. Altman’s side bets, introduced this summer. Even as it was mocked, he declared that “we especially love our haters, it gives us energy, please keep it coming!”

Hundreds of OpenAI employees signed a letter Monday demanding Mr. Altman’s return. On Friday, it was one of the most important companies in Silicon Valley; on Monday morning, most of its employees were threatening to quit. Mr. Altman is the visionary founder who can save them, and OpenAI, and perhaps all mankind.

This superhero narrative is the secret engine of just about every book beloved by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Travis Kalanick, a founder of Uber, was a devotee of Ayn Rand, whose heroes are at war with society. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, was a childhood fan of “Star Trek,” where Captain Kirk made every decision and took charge of every landing party. Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist who backed Donald J. Trump in 2016, loves “The Lord of the Rings,” an epic tale where a handful of heroes save the world. Mr. Thiel’s corporate names (Palantir, Mithril, Valar) are taken from the story.

Mr. Altman, to his credit, has endorsed a wide reading list that goes beyond books written by his friends in Silicon Valley, like Mr. Thiel. He recommended another Valley favorite, Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” science fiction series, which is once again about how a charismatic and farseeing savant and his mostly male acolytes can save everyone, in this case 25 million planets.

But the path to becoming a real-life Gandalf or Captain Picard is strewn with peril.

Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos modeled herself on Mr. Jobs. When she couldn’t get her blood-testing technology to work, she simply pretended it did. Adam Neumann promised to reinvent the office experience with WeWork. It declared bankruptcy two weeks ago, although Mr. Neumann did manage to become rich. Sam Bankman-Fried, the bright promise of cryptocurrency, will be sentenced in March for fraud. Elon Musk has not helped his reputation or his bank account by buying Twitter, now called X.

For Mr. Altman, this past weekend may have been a personal peak. For all the talk of A.I. taking jobs, he suddenly became the one essential person in all technology. A post on X by Eric Schmidt, the former chief executive of Google, captured some of the mood, and never mind that Google is in a fierce competition with OpenAI:

“Sam Altman is a hero of mine. He built a company from nothing to $90 Billion in value, and changed our collective world forever. I can’t wait to see what he does next. I, and billions of people, will benefit from his future work — it’s going to be simply incredible.”

This is Jobs-level praise. Perhaps wisely, Mr. Altman scorned all the offers he was getting to fund his next start-up. Microsoft, the biggest investor in OpenAI, announced late Sunday that he would be coming there. He’ll work for others now.

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