The man who compared his invention to the atomic bomb is a long time coming. Sam Altman, head of Open AI, the company behind the controversial chatbot ChatGPT, is in demand like hardly anyone these days. And so the white leather chair on the green-lit stage in the Audimax of the Technical University of Munich (TUM) remains unoccupied for an hour.

Henning Peitsmeier

Business correspondent in Munich.

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Altman had previously visited the Chancellor in Berlin, hence the delay this Thursday, which goes far beyond the academic quarter of an hour. All the more entertaining is the appearance of the boyish-looking American, who could easily pass as a student on campus in a T-shirt and open shirt despite his 38 years.

Man behind a powerful technique

There's no question that with Altman's guest appearance, TUM has pulled off a coup. A few months ago, Altman's Open AI triggered a real hype about artificial intelligence (AI) that can simulate human voices, compose music or help diagnose skin cancer with the release of ChatGPT. It's a powerful technology, but it also has what it takes to change history in the same way that nuclear weapons once did.

Apart from the chancellor's visit, Altman's speech in Munich is the only appearance in Germany. The topics in the lecture hall of the TUM are those of the Chancellery in Berlin: "We talked a lot about the future of AI and about regulatory issues," Altman tells the students from his conversation with Olaf Scholz (SPD). Altman does not have a clear answer as to which values should guide regulation. "I think artificial intelligence should be regulated," he says, because "we should make sure that what we send out into the world makes sense."

There is no longer any talk of the threat with which he made people sit up and take notice in London the day before. Altman had told journalists that the announced regulations of the European Union could be followed by a withdrawal of Open AI from Europe: The current draft of the European AI law is over-regulation, and "if we cannot meet the requirements, we will cease operations."

Altman knows the regulatory debate

In Munich, Altman sounds much more authoritative. "I think there is a version of the European AI law that can be good," he says now, but the plans for it are still quite vague. "We'll see how it all turns out."

At the beginning of the month, the EU agreed on a draft set of rules. The law regulating AI requires companies developing so-called Generative AI such as ChatGPT to disclose copyrighted material used, and representatives of the Parliament, the EU Council and the Commission are currently working out the final details. In addition, the EU wants to encourage companies to make a voluntary commitment.

Altman is familiar with these discussions from his home country. A few days ago, he himself explained in a hearing before the US Senate how the technology could be misused, for example, to manipulate elections through disinformation campaigns. In an open letter, a number of scientists suggested taking a break from the further development of AI. More than 1000 signatories backed this proposal – including Tesla CEO Elon Musk. In front of the students in Munich, Altman doubts that a respite could help: "Six months? One year, two years? And what do we do then?"

Altman was one of half a dozen co-founders of Open AI in 2015, including Musk. Even then, Altman made it clear in one of his rare inteviews that the fusion of man and machine had long since begun, with a merger being "our best scenario": "We enslave AI or it enslaves us."

Munich welcomes Altman almost like a pop star

Altman fell out with his then-business partner Musk in 2018 when he wanted to bring Open AI under his sole control and Altman brought Microsoft on board. After all, Open AI needed gigantic computing capacity, and Microsoft was able to deliver it. Since then, Altman has been on a mission to develop artificial intelligence (AI) that will benefit all of humanity.

Altman, who grew up in Missouri, moved to Silicon Valley 20 years ago and, after dropping out of computer science studies, quickly made a career in the local start-up scene. Today, he is revered as an investor and mentor. For many years, he worked for the start-up incubator Y Combinator, which supports young companies in their start-up phase and of which he was CEO until 2019. This has resulted in billion-dollar companies such as the flat-sharing and tourism platform Airbnb or the payment service provider Stripe.

In the Munich lecture hall, too, sympathy is flying to the smart Silicon Valley billionaire. He encourages the students: "This is the best time to build something exciting," he calls out to them. There is applause and cheers. Like a pop star.