Nicky Blackburn
June 6, 2023, Updated June 7, 2023

When a tech leader of the caliber of Sam Altman, founder of Microsoft-backed OpenAI, visits Israel, there’s bound to be excitement.

And that heady fervor was definitely palpable outside the Smolarz Auditorium at Tel Aviv University on Monday, when Altman and OpenAI cofounder and Chief Scientist Ilya Sutskever – a Russian who grew up in Israel and then moved to Canada — came for a one-hour conversation. 

‘There’s never been a better time to be an entrepreneur’
Smolarz Auditorium at Tel Aviv University, ready to host OpenAI’s CEO and chief scientist. Photo by Chen Galili

The lecture had already been seriously overbooked and many tickets rescinded, but still dozens of hopefuls waited outside on the off chance a seat might become available, or alternatively they could persuade someone on the way in to sell their ticket.

Like so many people these days, I’ve used ChatGPT, OpenAI’s viral generative AI chatbot released last year, and found it not only a valuable and interesting tool, but a tech with such unlimited potential in every single field that you almost feel like you are standing on a precipice. 

It’s like that moment years ago when I first went on the Internet and understood that everything was about to go through a tectonic shift – except that this time the technology works instantly and you don’t have to spend ages trying to log in. 

This is clearly what Altman thinks too. 

”This is totally the best time to set up a startup that I have ever seen,” he told the audience. “Better than the iPhone. The only comparable thing is when the Internet was founded.

“You are the luckiest entrepreneurs that existed in a long time. The ground is shaking right now, things are possible that people can’t quite imagine. Every entrepreneur is a ‘summer child’ right now,” he said.

I wonder how the crowd took this. Fundraising these days continues to be a nightmare for most young entrepreneurs.

For better or worse

Altman and Sutskever arrived in Israel for just 24 hours as part of a worldwide tour to meet AI users, policymakers and developers. 

It was a chockablock visit and perhaps that’s why at the start of their conversation with Dr. Nadav Cohen from TAU’s School of Computer Science, they looked a little like deer in the headlights. 

‘There’s never been a better time to be an entrepreneur’
Tel Aviv University’s Smolarz Auditorium. Photo courtesy of Tel Aviv University

Once they’d relaxed, however, the conversation began to flow as they discussed not only the promise and potential of this technology – which they believe is about to completely revolutionize our lives for the better – but also the significant threats inherent within it. 

Yes, it can help speed up cures for diseases, but yes – in the wrong hands – it can also create even worse new diseases.

Yes, new jobs will be created, but at the same time some categories of jobs will be lost, and there will be economic uncertainty.

Altman set up OpenAI in 2015 with the support of billionaire Elon Musk, with a mission to ensure that AI benefits humanity. But in May this year, both Altman and Sutskever signed a letter warning that AI is an existential threat to humanity.

It’s happening

In the lecture, they emphasized the need to create a regulatory body, similar to those currently used to control the nuclear industry, in an effort to both limit AI development and use it responsibly. 

‘There’s never been a better time to be an entrepreneur’
OpenAI founder Sam Altman, center, onstage at Tel Aviv University. Photo by Ofer Amram

“The world should treat this not as a ‘ha ha, not going to happen’ sci-fi risk, but as something that is going to happen in the next decade,” said Altman. 

Despite this, he also said that he thought it a “mistake to go for heavy regulation now.” 

“AI can help us make scientific discoveries that we are not currently capable of,” said Altman. “We are going to get to understand the mysteries of the universe. Science and technology is the only way that lives will get better.”

Tons of questions

The best part was inevitably when the hugely enthusiastic and tech-savvy audience was invited to ask questions. Even before the announcer had finished his sentence about opening up the floor, dozens of people were on their feet shouting “Me, me!” 

‘There’s never been a better time to be an entrepreneur’
The very engaged crowd that came to hear OpenAI’s CEO and chief scientist at Tel Aviv University. Photo by Chen Galili

Questions fell into three main areas: excitement and a desire to understand the potential; questions about the technology itself – and a hopeful 18-year-old asking what they might be looking for in young employees; and anxiety not only about the dangers of this technology, but how it is going to affect tech jobs, and our future.

If AI poses a danger, why do they keep creating it? Tech journalist, Dror Globerman, tech blogger wanted to know.

Is it still worth studying computer science? What  should I learn that will enable me to have a job in 10-15 years? 

Israel’s role in generative AI

And what about Israel’s role in all this? 

Altman told the audience he was impressed with the talent pool and encouraged developers to explore the world of AI. 

“There are two things I have observed that are particular about Israel: The first is talent density – this is a smallish country that punches way above its weight — and the second is the relentlessness, drive, and ambition of Israeli entrepreneurs,” Altman said. 

“Those two things together are optimal to lead to incredible prosperity both in terms of AI research and AI applications.”

‘There’s never been a better time to be an entrepreneur’
Sam Altman answering questions during his appearance at Tel Aviv University. Photo by Chen Galili

During their visit to Israel, Altman and Sutskever met President Isaac Herzog; management at Microsoft Israel Research and Development Center (ILDC) – which is thought to be working on ways to make ChatGPT’s data processing cheaper; cybersecurity companies; and other leaders in the tech field. 

“It is very special for me to visit Israel,” Altman told Herzog. “The rate at which the tech and startup community in Israel is embracing AI is incredible to watch. The energy on making use of the technology and its positive benefits is fantastic to see, and I am sure Israel will play a huge role — its tech community is truly amazing.”

The two tech pioneers started their world tour in May, and have visited Canada, the US, Brazil, Spain, Britain and France among other places. 

After Israel, they flew to Jordan, and will continue on to Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, India and South Korea.

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