Sam Altman and Elon Musk are 'playing a game of one-upmanship' in an era of 'absurdist capitalism,' says ex-Facebook exec

A report this week that OpenAI CEO Sam Altman seeks to raise up to $7 trillion had many tech-industry observers scratching their heads. The amount easily exceeds the market cap of any company—including Microsoft, which recently hit $3.1 trillion and surged past Apple as America’s most valuable company.

Of course, Microsoft has been propelled by the boom in artificial intelligence kicked off by ChatGPT maker OpenAI, in which it is the largest investor. But as AI weaves its way into how we work and play in the years ahead, Altman foresees a problem: an inadequate number of AI chips and chipmaking facilities.

With that in mind, he’s seeking to raise large sums from wealthy investors around the world for a project that would boost production of AI chips. The Wall Street Journal, speaking to unnamed sources, reported this week that Altman wants $5 trillion to $7 trillion for the project, in which OpenAI, investors, chipmakers, and power suppliers would team up to build chip foundries.

The amount dwarfs, as the Journal notes, the size of today’s global semiconductor industry. 

Sam Lessin, a Silicon Valley investor and early Facebook executive—he’s running for a slot on the Harvard Board of Overseers, an effort backed by Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, a former Harvard classmate—mused about the fundraising in an X post on Friday entitled “The Era of Absurdist Capitalism.” 

When trillions are being sought in a fundraise, Lessin wrote, “you have to question what has happened to society/our system.”

He brought up Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, writing: “I don’t grudge Sam’s showmanship in and of itself—he is just extending the game Elon has played with ‘self-driving cars around the corner’ or ‘Mars by 2024.’”

Read more: Sam Altman sheds light on feud with Elon Musk: ‘The closer people are to being pointed in the same direction, the more contentious the disagreements are’

In 2020, Musk said that SpaceX’s first crewed Mars mission could launch as early as 2024. Two years later he pushed that back to 2029.

“Sam is just playing a game of one-upmanship,” Lessin wrote. “Starting with fear-mongering AGI, and when that runs out…let’s come up with the biggest number we can think of.” 

AGI stands for artificial general intelligence, a hypothetical type of AI that can do any task a human can. Altman spent much of last year warning world leaders and others about the dangers of AGI, an exercise that also helped turbocharge interest in OpenAI’s products. The Financial Times reported this week that OpenAI’s revenues have surpassed $2 billion on an annualized basis. 

The danger, Lessin suggested, is that capitalism, rather than being the invisible hand that guides us, “becomes a game of ‘absurdities’ vs. discipline.” 

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