Elon Musk Tries to Direct AI—Again
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Elon Musk Tries to Direct AI—Again

His latest startup follows a decade of being outmanoeuvred in his quest to steer the development of artificial intelligence

Tue, May 2, 2023 9:42amGrey Clock 6 min

For at least a decade, Elon Musk has tried to steer the development of artificial intelligence—only to be outmanoeuvred by rivals and former allies.

He has now stepped up his efforts after the success of OpenAI, an organisation he co-founded but then left after a power struggle. Mr. Musk has warned for years that poorly built artificial intelligence could have catastrophic effects on humanity. Since OpenAI’s ChatGPT became a viral sensation last November, Mr. Musk has denounced it as politically correct and warned it could lead AI to become too powerful for humans to control.

He has called his new effort TruthGPT, and billed it as a truth-seeking artificial intelligence model that will one day comprehend the universe. On March 9, he incorporated a company called X.AI in Nevada, laying the formal groundwork.

So far, he has struggled to define a precise vision for his startup and is still in the process of assembling a team, said people familiar with the matter. Musk’s representatives have said X.AI intends to raise cash at some point from investors, the people said.

Mr. Musk didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Two weeks after incorporating X.AI, Mr. Musk signed an open letter calling for a six-month pause on the development of AI models stronger than the latest one released by OpenAI, called GPT-4. The letter was organised by the Future of Life Institute, which says its goal is to steer transformative technology away from extreme, large-scale risks. Its biggest funder is Mr. Musk.

Steven Weber, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley who met Mr. Musk several years ago at a gathering of A.I. academics in Northern California, sees a consistent thread through what appear to be opposing impulses.

“He holds both of these beliefs at once: that human beings can’t be relied on to really control technology, and technology is going to advance and it needs to advance subject to his vision, more than anybody else,” Mr. Weber said.

“AI stresses me out,” Mr. Musk said at the end of a March presentation given to Tesla Inc. investors. “It’s quite dangerous technology. I fear I may have done some things to accelerate it.”

For X.AI, he hired Igor Babuschkin, a senior scientist at DeepMind, an AI lab under Alphabet Inc.’s Google, to lead the effort, people familiar with the matter said. Mr. Musk also purchased powerful computer chips similar to ones used in the technology behind ChatGPT, one of the people said.

He is still trying to attract top talent from leading labs and universities, people familiar with the matter said. Some AI researchers said they have been turned off by Mr. Musk’s struggles to turn Twitter around since acquiring the social-media company in October, as well as his public attacks on OpenAI.

Mr. Musk’s faltering attempts to steer AI’s development date back more than a decade. He has previously said he made an early investment in DeepMind, founded in 2010, to monitor its AI research rather than make money.

In late 2013, he launched a last-minute bid to purchase DeepMind, the leading AI lab at the time, but lost out to Google, according to people familiar with the talks. Mr. Musk wanted to steer the lab’s research and told associates that Google’s then-Chief Executive Larry Page couldn’t be trusted to oversee the creation of advanced AI, according to people familiar with his thinking.

DeepMind has become a central element of Google’s efforts to infuse advanced AI into its search powerhouse​, and recently merged with another AI unit called Brain to form Google DeepMind. In a recent interview with Tucker Carlson on Fox News, Mr. Musk said he and Mr. Page used to be close friends who spent nights discussing AI safety at Mr. Page’s home in Palo Alto, Calif.

Mr. Page wanted to create a “digital god” as soon as possible, Mr. Musk said, and in their conversations called Mr. Musk a “speciesist” for saying it was important that the technology protected humanity.

Mr. Page and representatives at Google didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Musk’s interest in buying DeepMind was informal and didn’t reach the DeepMind board, according to the people familiar with the talks. It hasn’t previously been reported.

Mr. Musk co-founded OpenAI two years later with Sam Altman, the current chief executive, and several others. The organisation was founded as a nonprofit and intended to serve as a counterweight to Google, with the goal of developing AI in a safer, more transparent way than large tech companies could.

Mr. Musk served as the financial linchpin for the project and promised to make sure that OpenAI fully received the $1 billion in funding promised by early backers, people involved with the effort said. He recruited employees and met regularly with company leaders to set the vision, they said.

Mr. Musk set an aggressive research timeline for OpenAI, warning that the company’s credibility would be compromised if it didn’t achieve a major breakthrough soon after its launch, according to former employees familiar with the remarks. He often conducted polls among employees to see when they thought so-called artificial general intelligence—in which machines are able to match or surpass the intelligence of humans—could be achieved, former employees said.

In September 2017, Mr. Musk told his brother, Kimball Musk, and a longtime financial backer that he saw OpenAI and Neuralink, a startup he founded to link humans with computers through brain implants, as worthy of more of his time, according to recently released court documents related to a lawsuit against Tesla over Mr. Musk’s compensation.

“OpenAI and Neuralink are both critical to a good future for humanity. My instincts tell me that I should be devoting a much higher percentage of time to them,” Mr. Musk texted them, according to the documents. OpenAI and Neuralink at one point shared an office in San Francisco.

Mr. Musk grew frustrated with what he saw as OpenAI’s slow progress and pushed for more control of the company, The Wall Street Journal previously reported. At the time, OpenAI didn’t have a chief executive or a formal management structure.

Mr. Musk clashed with Mr. Altman, who wanted to create a for-profit arm that would allow OpenAI to raise cash from investors, people familiar with the matter said.

Mr. Musk subsequently left. Mr. Altman, who has said he considers Mr. Musk a mentor, became CEO in 2019, created a for-profit entity and raised $1 billion from Microsoft Corp.

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman at the company’s office in March. PHOTO: CLARA MOKRI FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Mr. Musk tweeted in March that he had donated around $100 million to OpenAI, though people familiar with the figure said he contributed less than $50 million.

Mr. Musk focused his AI efforts at Tesla, where he made progress in using the technology to enhance its driver-assistance systems. He said the EV maker would start introducing a fleet of robotaxis by 2020, and showcased a humanoid robot he said would feature safeguards to prevent wrongdoing by the machine.

Regulators are scrutinising Tesla’s driver-assistance software for safety problems. The company has yet to roll out robotaxis, which rely on the kind of driverless technology that Google sister company Waymo and General Motors Co.’s Cruise LCC have begun to deploy.

Mr. Musk grew more publicly critical of OpenAI after the company released ChatGPT last fall, accusing the company of being a “maximum-profit company” controlled by Microsoft. “Not what I intended at all,” he tweeted.

In a March 28 interview with the Journal, Mr. Altman said OpenAI took its safety obligations seriously.

“We spent more than six months after we finished GPT-4 to safety test, to align it, to really probe its capabilities, at a time when I believe some of the [Future of Life Institute] letter signatories were even, you know, pushing us to release it faster,” Mr. Altman said. He declined to specify which signatories he meant but said seeing those names prompted “some eye rolls.”

In early 2023, Mr. Musk texted Mr. Altman that he was starting a rival AI effort, according to people familiar with the exchange. Mr. Altman wished him well but said he didn’t understand how a new lab would allay Mr. Musk’s concerns about AI development, they said.

One OpenAI board member, Shivon Zilis, stepped down in part due to a conflict of interest with Mr. Musk’s new AI efforts, said people familiar with the matter. Ms. Zilis is also an executive at Mr. Musk’s Neuralink and had twins with Mr. Musk in 2021. Ms. Zilis didn’t respond to a request for comment.

After ChatGPT’s release, Mr. Musk said on Twitter that he cut off OpenAI from access to a pipeline of Twitter data, which OpenAI could potentially use for training the AI models powering ChatGPT. “I just learned that OpenAI had access to Twitter database for training,” Mr. Musk tweeted in early December. “I put that on pause for now.” People familiar with OpenAI say the company didn’t use this Twitter data to train its models.

A few days later, Mr. Musk visited OpenAI’s San Francisco headquarters at Mr. Altman’s invitation and the two had what turned into a lengthy discussion about the Twitter decision, among other topics, according to current and former OpenAI employees.

At one point, an OpenAI researcher showed Mr. Musk how Twitter could potentially use ChatGPT. Mr. Musk brought one of his toddlers and a nanny, some of the people said, and he and the nanny took turns bouncing the child on their laps when the child grew fussy.

He struck a benign tone with employees, who found him wandering around the kitchen and hallways with his security detail, the employees said.

In one conversation, Mr. Musk entertained the idea that the universe was a computer simulation, they said. Soon after, he left the building.


Consumers are going to gravitate toward applications powered by the buzzy new technology, analyst Michael Wolf predicts

Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

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Car Dealers on Why Some Customers Hesitate With EVs

Concern about electric vehicles’ appeal is mounting as some customers show a reluctance to switch

Mon, Dec 11, 2023 4 min

Auto dealers across many parts of the country say electric vehicles are becoming too hard a sell for buyers worried about the range, reliability and price of these models.

When Paul LaRochelle heard Ford Motor was coming out with an electric pickup truck, the dealer was excited about the prospects for his business.

“We thought we could build a million of them and sell them,” said LaRochelle, a vice president at Sheehy Auto Stores, which sells vehicles from a dozen brands in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

The reality has been less positive. On Sheehy’s car lots, LaRochelle says there is a six- to 12-month supply of EVs, compared with a month of gasoline-powered vehicles.

With automakers set to release a barrage of new electric models in the coming years, concerns are mounting among auto retailers about whether the technology will have broader appeal given that many customers are still reluctant to make the switch.

Battery-powered models have been piling up on car lotsdealers say, as EV sales growth has slowed in the U.S. this year. Car companies have been offering a combination of discounts and lower interest-rate deals in an effort to juice demand. But it hasn’t been enough, because buyer reticence extends beyond the price tag, dealers say.

“I’m not hearing the consumer confidence in the technology,” said Mary Rice, dealer principal at Toyota of Greensboro in North Carolina. “People aren’t beating down the door to buy these things, and they all have a different excuse why they aren’t buying one.”

Customers cite concerns about vehicles burning through a battery charge faster in cold weather or not being able to travel as far as they expected on a single charge, dealers say. Potential buyers also worry that chargers aren’t as readily accessible as gas stations or might be broken.

Franchise dealerships fear that the push to roll out new models will inundate them with hard-to-sell vehicles. Research firm S&P Global Mobility said there are 56 EV models for sale in the U.S. this year, and the number is expected to nearly double to 100 next year.

“I start to think, you know maybe we should just all pump the brakes a little bit,” Rice said.

A group of dealers expressed their concerns about the government’s role in pushing electric vehicles in a letter last month to President Biden.

A Toyota Motor spokesman said the majority of dealers have become “increasingly more confident in their ability to sell Toyota EV products.”

At Ford, the company’s electric-vehicle sales are rising, including for its F-150 Lightning pickup, but demand isn’t evenly spread across the country, according to a spokesman.

Dealers say that after selling an EV, they sometimes hear complaints about charging and the vehicles not always meeting their advertised range. In some cases, customers seek to return them to the dealer shortly after buying them.

“We have a steady number of clients that have attempted to or flat out returned their car,” said Sheehy’s LaRochelle.

While EVs remain a small but rapidly expanding part of the new-car market, the pace of growth has slowed this year. Electric-vehicle sales increased 48% in the first 11 months, compared with a 69% jump during the same period in 2022, according to Motor Intelligence. Sales remain concentrated in a few states, with California accounting for the largest chunk, S&P Global Mobility data found.

The cooling growth has raised broader questions in the industry about whether car companies face a temporary hurdle or a longer-term demand challenge. Automakers have invested billions of dollars to bring more EV models to the market, and many analysts and car executives say they remain optimistic that sales will continue to expand.

“Although the rate of growth has slowed recently, EV demand is clearly moving in the right direction,” said General Motors Chief Executive Mary Barra on a recent conference call with analysts. A combination of more affordable model options and better charging infrastructure would help encourage more people to buy electric vehicles, she said.

There are also varying views within the dealer community about how quickly buyers will adopt the technology.In hot spots for electric-vehicle demand, such as Los Angeles, dealers say their battery-powered models are some of their top sellers. Those popular EV markets also tend to have more mature public charging networks.

Selling an electric car or truck outside of those demand centres is proving more difficult.

Longtime EV owner Carmella Roehrig thought she was ready to go full-electric and sold her backup gasoline vehicle. But after the 62-year-old North Carolina resident found herself stranded last year in a rural area of South Carolina, she changed her mind. Roehrig’s Tesla Model S got a flat tire, but none of the stores in the area carried tires for a Tesla. She ended up paying a worker at a nearby shop to drive her home.

Roehrig still has her Tesla but bought a pickup truck for long road trips.

Tesla didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“I have these conversations with people who say we’ll all be in EVs in 15 years. I say: ‘I’m not so sure. I’ve tried to do it,’” Roehrig said. “I think you need a gas backup.”

Customers who want to ditch their gas vehicle for environmental reasons are sometimes hesitant, said Mickey Anderson, president of Baxter Auto Group, which owns dealerships in Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado.

“We’re in the Colorado Springs market. If this is your sole mode of transportation, and you’re in a market in extremes of elevation and temperature, the actual range is very limited,” Anderson said. “It makes it extremely impractical.”

Dealers representing around 4,000 stores across the U.S. signed the letter in November addressed to Biden, saying the administration’s proposed auto-emissions regulations designed to promote electric-vehicle sales are unrealistic. The signatories ranged from stores owned by family businesses to publicly held giants such as AutoNation and Lithia Motors.

“Some customers are in the market for electric vehicles, and we are thrilled to sell them. But the majority of customers are simply not ready to make the change,” the letter said.

Some carmakers are pushing back EV-rollout plans. GM said in mid-October that it would delay the opening of an electric pickup plant by a year to late 2025. In response to weaker-than-expected consumer demand, Ford said in late October that it would defer $12 billion of planned spending on electric-vehicle investment.

Since September, dealers on average took more than two months to sell an EV, compared with 40 days for all vehicles, according to car-shopping website Edmunds.

While discounts have helped boost sales of some electric vehicles, they also have led to repercussions for some current owners because it reduces the value of their vehicles, dealers say.

“Most people don’t have the confidence to buy an EV and know what it will be worth in 10-15 years,” said Rice from the Toyota dealership.

It may take some time for the industry to adjust because it is still in an early stage of switching to electric vehicles, Sheehy’s LaRochelle said.

“We’re asking for this market to grow organically,” he said.


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