Elon Musk signed an open letter on Tuesday calling for a 6-month pause in the development of artificial intelligence tools like OpenAI’s ChatGPT, a chatbot that’s become incredibly popular since it was first made public in November. And while Musk may insist it’s all about making sure the technology is safe, there’s likely a much easier explanation: Musk is no longer involved in OpenAI and is frustrated he doesn’t have his own version of ChatGPT yet.
OpenAI was founded as a nonprofit in 2015, with Elon Musk as the public face of the organization. An article from Wired in early 2016 showed a photo of Musk with his arms crossed, giving the impression he was ready to revolutionize yet another industry. But the story behind Musk’s departure from OpenAI is a interesting one, and seems like a much more logical explanation for why the billionaire CEO of several high-tech companies wants to hamper development at OpenAI.
OpenAI was co-founded by Sam Altman, who butted heads with Musk in 2018, when Musk decided he wasn’t happy with OpenAI’s progress. Several large tech companies had been working on artificial intelligence tools behind the scenes for years, with Google making significant headway in the late 2010s.
Musk worried that OpenAI was running behind Google and reportedly told Altman he wanted to take over the company to accelerate development. But Altman and the board at OpenAI rejected the idea that Musk—already the head of Tesla, The Boring Company and SpaceX—would have control of yet another company.
“Musk, in turn, walked away from the company—and reneged on a massive planned donation. The fallout from that conflict, culminating in the announcement of Musk’s departure on Feb 20, 2018, would shape the industry that’s changing the world, and the company at the heart of it,” Semafor reported last week.
After Musk left, he took his money with him, which forced OpenAI to become a private company in order to successfully raise funds. OpenAI became a for-profit company in March 2019.
As Semafor points out, it wasn’t clear that OpenAI would be such a huge success after Musk left, but the company was the first to unveil a smart chatbot with ChatGPT, and there’s legitimate excitement in the world of tech about the potential for this powerful tool. Users can ask ChatGPT anything, and it provides answers like a search engine might, but with so much more. Some people are utilizing ChatGPT to write code and even start businesses, among a host of other uses.
When Musk left, his stated reason was that AI technology being developed at Tesla created a conflict of interest.
“Elon Musk will depart the OpenAI Board but will continue to donate and advise the organization. As Tesla continues to become more focused on AI, this will eliminate a potential future conflict for Elon,” OpenAI said in a public announcement in February 2018.
And while the real reason Musk left OpenAI likely had more to do with the power struggle reported by Semafor, there’s almost certainly some truth to the fact that Tesla is working on powerful AI tech. Tesla requires complex software to run its so-called “Full Self-Driving” capability, though it’s still imperfect and has been the subject of numerous safety investigations.
Artificial intelligence tech wouldn’t just be useful for Tesla. Musk has also been working on a humanoid robot that he first unveiled in 2021 with a human dressed as a robot. The robot, dubbed Optimus, became a real thing during a demonstration in 2022, but it’s still very much in its infancy. AI tech would be tremendously useful for a robot like Optimus, but there’s no indication that Musk or his engineers have developed anything close to what OpenAI has accomplished.
The fact that Musk is so far behind in the AI race needs to be kept in mind when you see him warn that this technology is untested. Musk has had no problem with deploying beta software in Tesla cars that essentially make everyone on the road a beta tester, whether they’ve signed up for it or not.
“Powerful AI systems should be developed only once we are confident that their effects will be positive and their risks will be manageable,” Musk’s letter, which was also signed by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, explains.
Rather than issuing a statement solely under his own name, it seems like Musk has tried to launder his concern about OpenAI through a nonprofit called the Future of Life Institute. But as Reuters points out, the Future of Life Institute is primarily funded by the Musk Foundation.
Of course, there’s also legitimate concern about these AI tools. Microsoft Bing’s chatbot raised eyebrows last month when it tried to break up the marriage of a New York Times reporter and even expressed a desire to steal nuclear secrets.
I emailed Twitter’s press department in an effort to hear from Musk himself, but the company has set up an automatic reply that simply sends it no longer takes questions. The email previously sent all reporters a poop emoji. Musk doesn’t like the press, to say the least.
Musk is not a complicated man to understand. When the billionaire bought Twitter in October 2022, many people floated conspiracy theories about his supposed desire to influence the 2022 midterm election. But Musk’s desire to control a huge social media platform was much simpler than that. He wanted to control a place where he had fun, and he wanted to be the constant center of attention.
We see that need to be liked in everything Musk has done at Twitter. Why does Musk steal tweets rather than simply hit the retweet button? He needs to feel the love of millions of fans telling him he’s a genius. And he’s incredibly vindictive when an employee or a reporter displeases him. There are countless stories of Musk firing employees who told the billionaire information he didn’t want to hear.
The lesson, of course, is to take Musk’s stated goals with a huge grain of salt. Musk was perfectly happy with developing artificial intelligence tools at a breakneck speed when he was funding OpenAI. But now that he’s left OpenAI and has seen it become the frontrunner in a race for the most cutting edge tech to change the world, he wants everything to pause for six months. If I were a betting man, I’d say Musk thinks he can push his engineers to release their own advanced AI on a six month timetable. It’s not any more complicated than that.