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The Fractured Friendship of Tech Titans Elon Musk and Sam Altman

Summary

Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, and Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, were once close collaborators. They would meet for dinners, share the stage, and together co-founded OpenAI in 2015 to counter Google’s dominance in artificial intelligence. However, today […]

The Fractured Friendship of Tech Titans Elon Musk and Sam Altman

Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, and Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, were once close collaborators. They would meet for dinners, share the stage, and together co-founded OpenAI in 2015 to counter Google’s dominance in artificial intelligence.

However, today these two tech magnates are not on good terms. They regularly engage in public spats on social media and other platforms. So, what happened?

It is clear that the direction in which OpenAI has headed played a role, but Altman described another element that could explain this rift in friendship in a recent article for The New York Times.

“There is disagreement, lack of trust, egotism,” Altman said. “The closer people are aligned in the same direction, the more controversial the debates become. We see this in sects and religious orders. Fierce arguments exist between the closest people.”

Musk and Altman certainly seemed to have the same goal during a dinner in 2015 at the Rosewood Sand Hill hotel in Silicon Valley. Google had recently acquired DeepMind, a London-based startup focused on neural networks, making it the most likely company to develop artificial general intelligence (AGI), a system that can outperform humans in unknown tasks.

During the dinner, Musk, Altman, and other attendees discussed starting an open-source artificial intelligence lab dedicated to transparency and democratizing the benefits of advanced AI. Musk, along with several other members of the “PayPal mafia,” including Peter Thiel and Reid Hoffman, invested millions to kickstart the lab.

OpenAI was launched in 2015, but after a power struggle, Musk decided to step back in 2018. The necessary financial and computing resources for the nonprofit organization were secured from Microsoft, which pledged to invest billions in OpenAI starting in 2019. Altman created a for-profit entity within the nonprofit organization, an unusual structure that contributed to his recent temporary dismissal and reemployment as CEO.

Since parting ways with OpenAI, Musk has expressed disdain for the direction the company under Altman’s leadership has taken, especially after OpenAI accepted billions of dollars in investments from Microsoft.

“OpenAI was meant to be a counterweight to Google as an open-source (I named it ‘OpenAI’) non-profit. It is now a closed-source, for-profit company controlled by Microsoft,” Musk tweeted earlier this year. “That is not what I intended.”

Musk has long warned about the potential dangers advanced AI poses to humanity but also recognizes its benefits if developed safely. Last month, through his startup xAI, he announced Grok, an AI chatbot that competes with OpenAI’s ChatGPT, which sparked the current AI boom when it was released at the end of last year.

Altman swiftly criticized Grok, suggesting that it “answers questions with funny boomer humor in a way that’s cringeworthy and shocking for laughs.”

Musk immediately fired back at OpenAI’s GPT-4, labeling it “GPT-Snore” because it lacks a sense of humor and calling it “about as funny as a submarine’s door.”

During an interview, Altman described Musk as a “jerk” but acknowledged the role he played in attracting top AI experts to OpenAI. Musk was instrumental in recruiting Ilya Sutskever, the head of OpenAI’s research team, who joined the other board members in dismissing Altman last month, only to reverse the decision shortly after.

Part of their conflict may stem from Musk’s personality. He has also exchanged insults with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos over the years while both competed in their space ambitions. He severed his friendship with Google co-founder Larry Page, with the dispute largely revolving around Musk’s recruitment of Sutskever.

“He has a style that is not a style I would want for myself,” Altman said of Musk during a podcast with Kara Swisher.

But Altman also stated that Musk “genuinely cares about good outcomes with AGI,” which can be traced back to his recent comments that “the closer people are aligned in the same direction, the more controversial the debates become.”

How long their bitter feud will last remains to be seen. Stay informed about how artificial intelligence shapes the future of business by subscribing to the Eye on AI newsletter for free. Sign up here.

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