Sam Altman is AI’s compelling preacher. The world is ready to bow down.

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  • Sam Altman is a man on a mission: Sell the world on AI.
  • The OpenAI chief completed a global tour this month akin to a mission.
  • Insider spoke to people who met or saw Altman during his tour, who say the CEO was a convincing preacher.

Sam Altman knows he’s at an inflection point.

On June 9, at a fireside chat in Seoul, Korea, the OpenAI CEO acknowledged he was on a “diplomatic mission.” 

It’s closer to a religious mission, one that’s seen Altman and his team whiz across 16 countries in the space of three months, including, recently, Israel, Jordan, Qatar, the UAE, India and Korea.

In Tel Aviv, as his OpenAI commanders attended a dinner with a group of techies and entrepreneurs introduced as the “Templar Knights of Innovation,” Altman prepared to meet the country’s president, Isaac Herzog. He’s also met with Narendra Modi in India, Yoon Suk Yeol in South Korea, Emmanuel Macron in France, Rishi Sunak in the UK and influential lawmakers.  

It’s a reception more fitting for a world leader than a startup CEO. But Altman knows he’s the man of the moment. ChatGPT has sparked a new AI era that leaders are scrambling to understand. This is a fork-in-the-road moment as they decide what’s most politically expedient — encouraging AI through funding and a friendly regulatory regime, or to regulate it into oblivion.

OpenAI’s goal is to cement AI’s future importance to humanity. According to people on the ground during Altman’s tour, he achieved what he set out to do. 

OpenAI declined to comment for this story. 

Pitch 1: You can be included or excluded from the AI revolution

Altman’s sales pitch has rested on two central pillars. The first: AI will only work for you if you work with it. The second: AI is inevitable so get onboard before it’s too late.

During his pit-stop in Delhi, Altman’s audience heard how a tool like ChatGPT could adapt to “a land of languages like India,” said Varshul Gupta, founder of AI startup Dubverse.

This may be a smart way to overcome Indian wariness towards US tech firms.

India has more than 100 languages and significantly more dialects, though its lingua franca remains English. The country has suffered from years of brain drain as technical and mathematical talent leave for the US, exemplified by both Google and Microsoft’s CEOs being India-born. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has taken an increasingly nationalistic approach to technology and remains wary of sharing its citizens’ data with US companies.

Additionally, AI is a potential risk to India’s outsourcing economy – which dominates the IT sector and accounts for 8% of the country’s GDP – by replacing human customer sales reps with chatbots. 

Gupta said OpenAI’s underlying AI model, GPT, would need to be trained on vats of foreign-language data; as it stands, the vast majority of the data GPT is trained on is in English. 

“The Indian government will have hoards of data which will not be there on the internet, which OpenAI will not have access to,” Gupta said. “That might be why Sam is interested in doing some sort of high-level partnership, to get that data so they can make something for India and do some custom stuff.”

Pitch 2: This is the next internet

Survival shouldn’t be the focus, the OpenAI chief claimed in Seoul, when humanity is “about to enter the greatest age of human possibility, technological development, economic growth” thanks to AI. 

For Dovi Frances, a US-Israeli venture capitalist and founding partner of Group 11 who met with OpenAI, that much is already apparent. He thinks no nation can afford to ignore apps like ChatGPT.

“If you have artificial intelligence at the highest level, if you have a workforce of people who are proficient with it… then you have a competitive edge in 2030,” he said.

Droobi Health chief executive officer Jacob Mathew, who saw OpenAI in Doha, recalled a “memorable exchange” during a panel at the Qatar National Library where a high school student asked a question about the role ChatGPT could play in diplomacy.

The response? “Sam replied that he did not know and asked the student to tell him in ten years,” Mathew said. 

Altman’s approach is working, both in terms of winning over opinion and in tangibly influencing policy — despite warnings about the harms of AI for the labor market and misinformation. Time reported this month that OpenAI successfully lobbied the European Union to water down rules governing ChatGPT in its EU AI Act. 

And Elyas Felfoul, director of policy development and partnerships at WISE, an education initiative in Qatar, said he feels Altman was “genuine about raising awareness” on AI having hosted a panel with him.

“He’s humble about the fact that they created something much bigger than them,” Felfoul said. “There is a serious commitment to try to broaden the conversation.”

Altman seems to be setting the conversation’s tone. 

But for now, he seems to have people’s trust. Or as Felfoul puts it: “The first impression is positive. I hope I’m not wrong about this.”

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