Y Combinator President Sam Altman: I’m an Optimist, But I’m Not Optimistic About Government

At Disrupt today, Y Combinator Sam Altman had a somewhat gloomy prediction for attendees and the broader audience following the conference: If the state and federal government “can’t get its act together in time” and find solutions to shifts brought by technology, we’re in serious trouble.

Longer term, Altman expressed some concern about the growing divide between rich and poor that technology is accelerating. Altman was largely referring to a future in which a growing number of smart machines (presumably owned by a dwindling number of increasingly more powerful companies) is expected to take jobs away from humans.

He doesn’t necessarily think the robots themselves will be problematic, though he strongly advises that we start figuring out how to ensure they’re nice to us.

“I don’t know if it will happen in 10 or 50 years . . . but [this] isn’t just creating technology. [It’s] creating a new life form. It’s really high beta.” This “new species” will be also “more powerful than us,” so “we should make sure we [create it] in the best way for humans.”

Altman also doesn’t “believe in hard work for hard work’s sake,” calling that a Puritanical notion that Americans should dump at the curb. “I don’t have a particular problem” with massive job destruction, said Altman.

His bigger concern is the government’s inability to adapt to the coming shifts, noting that “current wealth redistribution systems are so bad, so mismanaged. . .”

Altman seemed equally troubled about our short-term future, particularly in the Bay Area, where not only are jobs not yet disappearing but where they are instead growing by leaps and bounds — and creating pressure for housing that San Francisco seems unable to meet.

Asked if Y Combinator was partly responsible for such demand, Altman demurred, offering instead that there are “seven million people in the Bay Area, and the companies we funded have hired tens of thousands of people total, so I don’t think we’re breaking the infrastructure of the Bay Area.”

Still, he noted, a dearth of housing in San Francisco is a huge and growing problem, and he blamed the “incompetence of governance.”

Said Altman, “If a founder in San Francisco can build a $50 billion company in five years, but the San Francisco government can’t approve [enough] new housing developments in the same span, that’s going to break . . . It’s really bad . . . I’m very optimistic most of the time, but I’m not optimistic that government will get its act together in time.”

Here’s the full interview: