1. Home
  2. tech
  3. news
  4. OpenAI's Sam Altman is the ultimate 'personality hire.' The industry is full of them.

OpenAI's Sam Altman is the ultimate 'personality hire.' The industry is full of them.

Katie Notopoulos   

OpenAI's Sam Altman is the ultimate 'personality hire.' The industry is full of them.
  • A personality hire is someone who succeeds because of their soft skills.
  • AI is thriving on hype (and fear) — and people who are good at creating hype are succeeding.

Of all the world-altering things possible in our new AI era, one decidedly old-fashioned thing is not going anywhere: the personality hire.

A "personality hire" is someone who contributes to a team with soft skills like their dazzling charm. There's a connotation that personality hires might not actually be good at their jobs, that they're just fun to have around the office. But they arguably serve an incredibly important function in the health of an organization.

In the field of AI, it's useful to lightly stretch the definition of "personality hire" to include someone who is really, really good at selling themselves, a product, or simply the idea of AI as this all-powerful entity that will completely change everything about life as we know it, for better or worse (hopefully, for the better if you heed their advice).

They're hype men (or women), you might say. This is because a lot of what's going on with AI right now is hype.

ChatGPT's chief knows how to get his way

The greatest of all these, of course, is Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT. This week, Bloomberg Businessweek reported on Altman's rise within Silicon Valley, starting from founding a mediocre social networking app at age 19 to becoming the head of the most exciting company in tech.

Altman founded Loopt, a pre-smartphone social location app in 2007. He charmed and networked with important tech and venture-capital power players, and was personally tapped to be Paul Graham's successor at Y Combinator at age 29. He was a savvy and successful investor (even still, he has personal investments in more than 400 companies, some of which do business with OpenAI, according to The Wall Street Journal, which has raised some eyebrows about conflict of interest) and convinced deep-pocketed friends Reid Hoffman, Peter Thiel, and Elon Musk (now a frenemy) to fund OpenAI as a nonprofit.

By many accounts, Altman is charismatic, good with people, and even better at getting his way. "Altman's biggest strength is figuring out who can help him the most, then dazzling them," someone who worked with Altman told Bloomberg on the Foundering podcast.

Altman is perhaps the most successful personality hire of all time.

This isn't totally groundbreaking (or even insulting to him). Being a successful CEO or a tech founder requires a certain personality type. This doesn't necessarily mean being fun at cocktail parties: Mark Zuckerberg is a ruthless businessperson but, until recently, seemed to have the charisma of a shingles outbreak. It takes Big Personality Hire Energy to muster the straight-faced ambition to say that you need to raise $7 trillion (yes, trillion) dollars.

Altman's talents as an operator also nearly cost him his job. This past November, when Altman was temporarily fired by the board of OpenAI, it was because some board members found him too smooth an operator and distrusted him. That Altman returned as CEO with a new board speaks to his ability to rally powerful allies like Satya Nadella of Microsoft, although he still has rough waters ahead internally.

Sam Altman isn't AI's only 'personality hire'

And then there's Leopold Aschenbrenner, a newly emerged hypeman of AI doomerism. Aschenbrenner, a former OpenAI employee who was reportedly fired for leaking a memo he wrote to the board about safety concerns, published a 165-page manifesto warning about the dangers of unchecked AI. It contains some questionable charts, comparisons to the building of the atomic bomb, and links to a Minecraft video on YouTube.

I don't know if AI will lead to the extinction of the human race or if he's full of smoke. (I sure hope it's not the end of the human race!) Aschenbrenner's warnings have been taken both credulously and skeptically, and I am not in a position to guess how likely it is that we'll soon be in a nuclear war with China over data centers, as he suggests. But there's something about his verbose proclamations that ring to me as hype.

Max Read on Substack has a very astute assessment of the manifesto and how the hyperbole of AI doomerism might be, in some cases, self-serving hype:

What I do know is that the Silicon Valley investor class has become quite contemptuous of Effective Altruism (the school of thought that drove the Future Fund), and highly skeptical and suspicious of the associated focus on existential risk or "x-risk" now that it seems to be a retardant on their ambitions. On the other hand, that same class is quite hawkish on China and bullish on national security businesses and the military-industrial complex. If I were a young and ambitious person whose career so far was largely in "A.I. safety" and other E.A.-associated fields, I might attempt to re-frame my experience and interests as more national-security oriented. And if I were really trying to suck up to reactionary venture capitalists I might also imply that I was unjustly fired over unfair charges of racism by a devious H.R. drone.

While the specifics of this C.V. are credibility-building among Aschenbrenner's target audience (investors and founders in whose companies he'd like to invest, as well as dupes on Twitter who will boost his profile), just as important is the image he fits: Young, prodigious, confident, fast-talking, able to speak fluidly on a range of subjects from geopolitics to epidemiology to chip design. If Aschenbrenner weren't a Zoomer I'd call him a millennial ambition psycho; certainly, he shares with the Ivy League sociopaths of my generation a cloying, manic self-assurance that somehow scans as "genius" to the credulous and the powerful and as "extremely annoying bullshit" to literally anyone else.

And then, tragically, there is the sad tale of the Humane AI Pin. Humane's founders were former Apple employees, incredibly stylish dressers, and produced incredibly cool demo videos that made the product seem amazing. They raised $240 million from investors, including Sam Altman.

When it first started taking preorders, I wrote about how I thought the AI Pin looked awesome and I wanted one — even if I could see how it might be slightly impractical. It was futuristic, fun, and made by really cool and edgy people — the ultimate AI hypesters.

Even with the hype, the AI Pin has flopped

Of course, the AI Pin has been a failure so far. Early reviews were dreadful, sales were far lower than projections, and the company was criticized for launching a half-baked product. This week, they announced a recall on the chargers because there was a danger they could catch on fire. I don't want to laugh (I will not suggest that you just squeeze the AI out of it like Juicero) because I think it's genuinely a huge bummer. I'd love for an ambitious new kind of hardware device to be successful; I'm rooting for that to happen out there in the world because I love cool new gadgets. But this clearly just wasn't it.

At this moment, in June of 2024, everyone knows AI is a "big deal," but most people don't know exactly what that will really mean or look like. This leaves the door wide open for hype purveyors to sell people on its magic and power — or play to their worst fears.

This isn't necessarily bad — hype can be useful just like personality hires in a workplace are useful. And the most beautiful part of all of this? A personality hire is the most human thing — something AI could never replace.

Popular Right Now