TECH TOUR

Sam Altman delves into AI’s future on Middle East tour

Stoking the excitement over artificial intelligence, the CEO of OpenAI travels from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi, saying now is the time to create new startups

Chen Galili

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman at Tel Aviv University

In a two-day dash through the Middle East, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman invited audiences in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan and Israel to explore the benefits of artificial intelligence and help guard against the “existential risk” it presents.

“I am hopeful that the region can play a central role in this global conversation,” Altman said on Tuesday in the UAE’s capital of Abu Dhabi. On Wednesday, he traveled to India and wrapped up the week in South Korea.

At all his Mideast stops, Altman radiated enthusiasm for both OpenAI’s groundbreaking ChatGPT product and the technology’s expanding abilities in language, business tasks, science and software development. As he did testifying in Congress last month and meeting with European leaders last week, Altman cautioned about the disruptions AI is expected to cause, such as broad job losses in fields where humans can be replaced by machines.

“We face serious risk. We face existential risk,” Altman said during a question-and-answer session at Hub 71, an Abu Dhabi business park teeming with software startups. “The challenge that the world has is how we’re going to manage those risks and make sure we still get to enjoy those tremendous benefits. No one wants to destroy the world.”

After touring Europe last week, Altman, 38, skipped through the Middle East at a pace of two countries a day. He spoke to Israeli audiences on Monday morning in Tel Aviv and then to Jordanians in Amman in the late afternoon. On Tuesday, he appeared for a morning seminar in Doha, Qatar, and caught a short flight to the UAE for the afternoon session.

Altman, whose appearance was also webcast, praised the UAE’s early embrace of AI, noting the high level of investment in the technology by both government and private interests.

“I think there’s been discussion about AI… in Abu Dhabi in particular, before it was cool,” he said. “You know, now, like everybody’s on the AI bandwagon, which we’re excited about, but we have… special appreciation for the people that were… talking about this when everyone thought AI was not going to happen.”

In Israel on Monday, Altman met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, visited the  R&D center of Microsoft Corp. and appeared onstage in a packed auditorium at Tel Aviv University.

“The rate at which the tech and startup community in Israel is embracing AI is incredible to watch,” Altman said in a meeting with  Herzog. “I am sure Israel will play a huge role.”

While Altman didn’t meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the two spoke by phone. Netanyahu later tweeted that he plans to “convene policy teams to discuss a national artificial intelligence policy in both the civilian and the security spheres.” He said he consulted with both Altman and billionaire Elon Musk, who was one of the original investors in OpenAI.

At Tel Aviv University, Altman and Ilya Sutskever, OpenAI’s co-founder and chief scientist, spoke to an audience of 1,200 students, researchers, business executives and investors. Among them were Gil Schwed, CEO and co-founder of Check Point Software Technologies; Chemi Peres, managing partner and co-founder of the Pitango venture capital firm; and Adi Soffer-Teeni, general manager in Israel of Meta, the owner of Facebook.

Having changed from the dark suit he wore to the meeting with Herzog, Altman showed up on campus dressed more casually — like a software executive — in a gray, long-sleeved T-shirt with white trousers. He told the crowd he was impressed with Israel’s “talent density” and the “relentlessness, drive, ambition level of Israeli entrepreneurs.” 

Altman said the excitement generated by AI means now is a great time to create a startup.

“You have an incredible new, fast-moving technological wave, and [that] is when startups win… when the incumbents screw up and get displaced. The ground is shaking right now, that is what you want as a startup… The opportunity to build value with a new approach doesn’t come along very often. And this is the big one, so every entrepreneur is a summer child right now. And it is a super cool time.”

AI technology, he said, “is unstoppable,” and the world just needs to “figure out how to manage the risk.” 

In Amman, Jordan, Altman made similar remarks to a crowd of about 500 at Al-Hussein Technical University. Fouad Jeryes, co-founder of the Jordanian cloud communications firm Maqsam and host of the event, told the audience that tickets were sold out “100 seconds” after they were put online.

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