The Long Shadow of Steve Jobs Looms Over the Turmoil at OpenAI

Hundreds of OpenAI employees signed a letter Monday demanding Mr. Altman’s return. On Friday, it was one of the most important companies in Silicon Valley; on Monday morning, most of its employees were threatening to quit. Mr. Altman is the visionary founder who can save them, and OpenAI, and perhaps all mankind.

This superhero narrative is the secret engine of just about every book beloved by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Travis Kalanick, a founder of Uber, 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 charge of every landing party. Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist who backed Donald J. Trump in 2016, loves “The Lord of the Rings,” an epic tale where a handful of heroes save the world. Mr. Thiel’s corporate names (Palantir, Mithril, Valar) are taken from the story.

Mr. Altman, to his credit, has endorsed a wide reading list that goes beyond books written by his friends in Silicon Valley, like Mr. Thiel. He recommended another Valley favorite, Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” science fiction series, which is once again about how a charismatic and farseeing savant and his mostly male acolytes can save everyone, in this case 25 million planets.

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

Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos modeled herself on Mr. Jobs. When she couldn’t get her blood-testing technology to work, she simply pretended it did. Adam Neumann promised to reinvent the office experience with WeWork. It declared bankruptcy two weeks ago, although Mr. Neumann did manage to become rich. Sam Bankman-Fried, the bright promise of cryptocurrency, will be sentenced in March for fraud. Elon Musk has not helped his reputation or his bank account by buying Twitter, now called X.

For Mr. Altman, this past weekend may have been a personal peak. For all the talk of A.I. taking jobs, he suddenly became the one essential person in all technology. A post on X by Eric Schmidt, the former chief executive of Google, captured some of the mood, and never mind that Google is in a fierce competition with OpenAI:

“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’s going to be simply incredible.”

This is Jobs-level praise. Perhaps wisely, Mr. Altman scorned all the offers he was getting to fund his next start-up. Microsoft, the biggest investor in OpenAI, announced late Sunday that he would be coming there. He’ll work for others now.

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