On June 17, Sam Altman — entrepreneur and President of what is arguably the world’s most influential startup incubator, Y Combinator in Silicon Valley — received an honorary PhD from the University of Waterloo, where he addressed graduating students from the Faculty of Engineering.

Altman is no stranger to Waterloo Region and its startup community – Vidyard, Thalmic Labs, BufferBox, Pebble, PiinPoint and a host of other local companies have passed through Y Combinator’s exclusive program, and benefited from the high-level connections it enabled them to make with some of tech’s top mentors and investors.

Altman first visited the region in September of 2014 during the first Hack the North event at UW. At that time, he had recently taken the YC reins from founder Paul Graham, who had spoken of something special happening in Waterloo Region.

Communitech News caught up with Altman at a reception at Vidyard headquarters on the night before he received his honorary doctorate to ask about his speech, his thoughts on the current political climate, the responsibilities of technology entrepreneurs and the future of Waterloo Region.

(edited for clarity and brevity)

Q – Tell us, what brings you to Waterloo Region this weekend?

A – Well, I love Waterloo, so I don’t need much of an excuse. But I’m deeply honoured to be getting a PhD tomorrow from the University of Waterloo.

Q – You’ll be giving an address tomorrow. Can you give us a sense of what you’ll say?

A – I’m going to talk about career advice, life advice; how much I think the world is changing right now. How we’re in the middle of one of these great, third technological revolutions in human history. We had the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, now we have the automation and software revolution. In a world like that, that’s changing that much at once, I think that A) existing career advice that people normally give doesn’t all apply, and B) there’s a real responsibility for the young people that are going to come of age in this change to think about the kind of world we want to build, because we do kind of get to rebuild it. So that’s what I’m going to talk about.

Q – What does that technological change look like?

A – What does the world look like when computers can do all repetitive human work better than humans? That’s going be what the world is going to look like soon. There’s plenty of non-repetitive human work, and there’s also some work that, though repetitive, requires this deep, human emotional connection and people don’t want robots for that. But there’s a lot of stuff that computers are going to do, and that’s going to be a big change.

Q – How do we adjust?

A – We find new things to do. Technological job elimination, or job change, has been happening for a long time. About 50 per cent of the jobs get eliminated every 75 years because technology comes along and makes old jobs obsolete. And we find new jobs, and I’m sure we’ll find new jobs again. I think human desire is limitless, and people find sillier and sillier things to want and care about and define themselves in status of, so we’ll be okay.

Q – In terms of the way that change in our values pays out, there’s debate about who the winners and losers are, how things shake out in terms of the inequality of that result…

A – Well this will certainly be something I will talk about tomorrow. I think that economic justice is going to be the most important social justice issue of our time. It is very important that we don’t have a world where a small number of people win and everybody else loses. This is an area I’ve been spending more and more of my time on, but I think it is really critical that we decide that we want a more equal world because technology on its own increases wealth but tends to concentrate it. We have to all get together and decide we’re going to put some pressure in the opposite direction.

Q – If it is technology that concentrates wealth, how can we use technology as a solution?

A – Well, a couple of things. One, sometimes technology really does just truly redistribute wealth. Sometimes. So like, the iPhone I think. The fact that anybody — a billionaire and somebody in poverty — the best computing device you can get is the same. You have access to all human knowledge, pretty much, from this one device. It’s an amazing thing. So there are times like that when technology is, in some very real sense, redistributive. But there are other areas, say in the cost of housing, where it’s not at all. I think there, technology can help some — we can have cheaper construction with robots — but we really need our government to wake up. This is the role of government.

Q – On that front, do you have any thoughts on the current political situation? In Canada, and in the United States?

A – Not good. Not who I would have, not who I did vote for for President. Your guy seems all right.

Q – What do you think technologists should be doing now. Should they be worried?

A – Of course! Look, a friend of mine says “technology is the cause of and solution to all problems.” I don’t think he even thinks that literally, but we solve a lot problems and we also cause others in the process of doing that. I think the industry does have a responsibility to talk about these changes and do whatever we can. If that’s running for office, run for office. If that’s building companies that help make the world a little bit more equal, that’s great too. But I think we have a responsibility to think about that, and try to be part of the solution.

Q – Could you give us a glimpse of the next five years? What are going to be the most interesting things to change in the technological landscape? In Waterloo Region?

A – I try not to make too many technology predictions tied to specific timeframes. Five years is a long time. I think one trend that is a relatively safe bet is that AI is going to transform a lot of industries. Machine learning, whatever you want to call it. So I think we’ll see a lot more of that. There are so many other technologies that could have huge impacts, but none that I feel quite as confident about as that. But I think we’ll see huge breakthroughs in a lot of different areas. Again, five years is so long that in five years we could all be walking around wearing AR or VR glasses all the time. Who knows? Canada could retire the Canadian dollar and switch to Bitcoin, who knows. Five years. It’s a long time.

In terms of Waterloo in particular, I’ve said many times before: I think this is one of the most interesting startup hubs in the world. There are more YC companies probably within a kilometre of here than anywhere else in a square kilometre, besides the Bay Area, anywhere in the world. So, I expect that ascendancy to keep going.

Watch Altman’s address to the University of Waterloo Engineering graduates here:

About The Author

Phil Froklage
Digital Journalist/Multimedia Producer

Phil Froklage is a writer, filmmaker and journalist in Waterloo Region obsessed with the future. Passionate about science and technology — and how it shapes our world — Phil likes nothing more than being surprised by the amazing things human beings can do.