Why Sam Altman Won’t Take OpenAI Public

Altman keeps OpenAI private in order to make innovative decisions.

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman in a blue jacket.
Sam Altman said he owns no equity in OpenAI to avoid conflicts of interest. JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images

OpenAI’s skyrocketing valuation, driven by the success of its flagship product ChatGPT, has fueled speculation that the private company, most recently valued at $29 billion, might be ripe to go public. But its cofounder and CEO Sam Altman isn’t interested.

“I don’t want to be sued,” Altman told reporters during a conference in Abu Dhabi yesterday (June 6) when asked about OpenAI’s potential IPO. More importantly, Altman prefers OpenAI’s private status. He can maintain full control when making unpopular decisions.

“When we develop superintelligence, we’re likely to make some decisions that public market investors would view very strangely,” the CEO said at yesterday’s event. Superintelligence is a term describing a more advanced A.I. that’s capable of learning any task or skill more effectively than humans.

OpenAI is developing increasingly advanced large language models that power its chatbot application ChatGPT. The first public version of ChatGPT, released in late November, ran on a model called GPT-3. In March, OpenAI upgraded the free version of ChatGPT to run on GPT-3.5 and the paid version to an even more sophisticated model called GPT-4.

In order to keep innovating, “the chance that we have to make a very strange decision someday is non-trivial,” Altman said yesterday.

OpenAI has a “strange” structure

Another reason Altman prefers keeping OpenAI private is the company’s unusual structure, he said.

OpenAI was founded by Altman and Elon Musk in 2015 as a nonprofit organization. It later evolved to have a for-profit branch, but its founders set up a hybrid “capped-profit” structure that allowed the company to raise external funds but with a promise that the original nonprofit operation still benefits.

Altman said during a congressional hearing in Washington D.C. in May that he owns no equity in OpenAI, which is uncommon for a founding CEO. The 37-year-old entrepreneur owns stakes in more than a dozen startups estimated to be worth more than $500 million.

This week, Altman is in Europe, the Middle East and Asia meeting with government officials and lawmakers and discussing OpenAI’s international expansion and A.I. regulation. After Abu Dhabi, his next stops include Qatar, India and South Korea.

In April, Altman visited Japan and announced a new OpenAI office in the country. During the trip, he met with Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and other government officials who expressed a keen interest in adopting A.I. in government work.

Why Sam Altman Won’t Take OpenAI Public