Thursday, July 25

Steve Jobs’ long shadow looms over the OpenAI turmoil

Hundreds of OpenAI employees signed a letter on Monday calling for Mr. Altman’s return. On Friday, it was one of Silicon Valley’s most valuable companies; By Monday morning, most of the employees were threatening to resign. Mr. Altman is the visionary founder who can save them, OpenAI, and perhaps all of humanity.

This superhero narrative is the secret engine behind nearly every book beloved by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Travis Kalanick, one of Uber’s founders, 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 care of every away team. Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist who backed Donald J. Trump in 2016, loves “The Lord of the Rings,” an epic story in which a handful of heroes save the world. Mr. Thiel’s corporate names (Palantir, Mithril, Valar) are taken from history.

Mr. Altman, to his credit, has sustained an extensive reading list that goes beyond books written by his Silicon Valley friends, such as Mr. Thiel. He recommended another Valley favorite, Isaac Asimov’s science fiction series “Foundation,” which once again is about how a charismatic, far-sighted savant and his mostly male acolytes can save everyone, in this case 25 millions of planets.

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

Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos took Mr. Jobs as a model. When she couldn’t get her blood-testing technology to work, she simply pretended it worked. Adam Neumann promised to reinvent the office experience with WeWork. He declared bankruptcy two weeks ago, although Mr. Neumann has managed to become rich. Sam Bankman-Fried, the brilliant cryptocurrency hopeful, will be sentenced in March for fraud. Elon Musk didn’t help his reputation or his bank account by buying Twitter, now called X.

For Mr. Altman, last weekend may have been a personal high. For all the talk about AI taking jobs, he suddenly became the one essential person in all of technology. A post on

“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 will be simply incredible.”

This is Jobs-level praise. Perhaps wisely, Mr. Altman scorned all the offers he was receiving to finance his next start-up. Microsoft, the largest investor in OpenAI, announced Sunday evening that he would be coming there. He will work for others now.