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.


This stylish family home combines a classic palette and finishes with a flexible floorplan

35 North Street Windsor

Just 55 minutes from Sydney, make this your creative getaway located in the majestic Hawkesbury region.

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A ‘cheeky’ seat takes out the top prize at Australia’s Next Top Designers Awards

A cash prize from Kanebridge Quarterly magazine, offered for the first time this year, drew a record number of entries for the design competition

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A versatile stool with a sense of fun took out the top prize at the Australia’s Next Top Designers awards at Design Show Australia last week.

The ‘Cheeky’ stool designed by Maryam Moghadam was the unanimous winner among the judging panel, which included Kanebridge Quarterly magazine Editor in Chief, Robyn Willis, Workshopped Creative Director Olaf Sialkowski, Design Show event organiser, Andrew Vaughan and Creative Director at Flexmirror Australia, Matt Angus.

Designed as an occasional stool or side table, the Cheeky stool comes in a range of skin tones. The judges applauded its commercial applications, its flexibility to work in a range of environments, and its sense of play.

In accepting the $10,000 prize, designer Maryam Moghadam quipped she was pleased to see ‘other people find bums as funny as I do’. A finalist at last year’s awards, Moghadam will put the prize money towards bringing her product to market.

Winner Maryam Moghadam said the $10,000 prize money would be put towards developing her product further for market.

Australia’s Next Top Designers is in its fourth year, but this is the first year a cash prize has been offered. Kanebridge Quarterly magazine has put up the prize money to support the next generation of emerging industrial design talent in Australia.

Editor in Chief Robyn Willis said the cash prize offered the winner the opportunity to put the money towards whatever aspect of their business it would most benefit.

“That might be prototyping their product further, spending on marketing, or simply paying for travel or even childcare expenses to allow the designer to focus on their work and take it to the next stage,” she said. “We’re thrilled to be supporting this design program and nurturing emerging design in a very practical way.”

The Coralescence lamps from the Tide Pool series by Suzy Syme and Andrew Costa had strong commercial applications, the judges said.
The Mass lamp by Dirk Du Toit is crafted from FSC-certified oak or walnut.

Two finalists were also awarded ‘highly commended’ by the judges — Mass lamp by Dirk Du Toit and the Coralescence lights from Suzy Syme and Andrew Costa at Tide Pool Designs. The judges agreed both products were beautifully resolved from a design perspective, as well as having strong commercial applications in residential and hospitality design. 


This stylish family home combines a classic palette and finishes with a flexible floorplan

35 North Street Windsor

Just 55 minutes from Sydney, make this your creative getaway located in the majestic Hawkesbury region.

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