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Seven years ago, Sam Altman, the former President of Y Combinator and Elon Musk sat down for an interview discussing the dangers of monopolisation in AI. “We have to achieve democratisation of AI so that no one company or small set of individuals is in control of advanced AI technology. That’s very dangerous and can be easily stolen. It can become a very unstable situation. That’s the reason why you and I created OpenAI,” Musk said as Altman listened intently.
Close beginnings in OpenAI
To say things appear different now would be an understatement. Generative AI, which is steering the current moment in tech, is being led by OpenAI with Altman as its captain. Musk, who co-founded the startup in 2015, eventually left the board in 2018 claiming that his work with OpenAI was clashing with the software advancements that Tesla was making into AI.
Tesla was also eating into the small pool of AI talent and had poached Andrej Karpathy from OpenAI and appointed him as the Chief Architect at Tesla. Karpathy returned to OpenAI in February this year.
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But a recent report by Semafor has brought the acrimonious details of the breakup into the light. According to sources, in early 2018, Musk said that he believed that OpenAI was falling behind in competition with Google. But there was a way to turn things around—by Musk taking control of OpenAI and running it himself.
But the relationship soured after other OpenAI founders including Altman and Reid Hoffman—also the co-founder of LinkedIn—rejected Musk’s proposition. The conflict triggered Musk’s exit from OpenAI on February 20, 2018, which ended up reshaping OpenAI’s future. This messy ending also sparked a spat between Musk and OpenAI, which continues to the present as OpenAI and its products gain more attention in the public eye.
However, Altman seems to have had enough of Musk and his verbal attacks. On a recent podcast with Lex Fridman, Altman stated, “Elon is obviously attacking us on Twitter right now and I have empathy because I believe he is understandably so really stressed about AGI safety. I’m sure there are some other motivations going on too but that’s definitely one of them”.
Altman admits that Musk’s comments were especially hurtful because Musk had been a hero of his. “I saw this video of Elon a long time ago talking about SpaceX and how a lot of early pioneers in space were bashing SpaceX and Elon was visibly hurt by that because those guys are heroes of his. Similarly, I definitely grew up with Elon as a hero of mine,’ he said.
In hindsight, Musk’s own vision had moulded Altman’s motivations strongly. A seven-year old interview with the pair and Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times shows exactly that. Altman was then still heavily involved with Y Combinator while Musk had the far-sightedness to see the potential in AI.
“In terms of things that are most likely to affect the future of humanity, AI is probably the single biggest thing. It is something that can go wrong very easily so we need to make sure that it goes right,” he told Altman.
When Altman was asked about Tesla, Altman sang its praises. “As most people who own one, I think that it’s the best car out there. The other cars that I have driven feel many years behind,” he declared.
The two remained thick and unveiled OpenAI together in December 2015. Altman had helped broker the meeting between Musk and Greg Brockman, the former CTO at Stripe and several other AI researchers leveraging the access he had to young talent.
Impact of OpenAI’s partnership with Microsoft
Musk’s anger on Twitter seems to have escalated with OpenAI’s success. He ended up halting OpenAI’s access to Twitter’s database in December, a month after ChatGPT’s launch last year. “Not surprising, as I just learned that OpenAI had access to the Twitter database for training. I put that on pause for now. Need to understand more about governance structure and revenue plans going forward. OpenAI was started as an open-source and non-profit. Neither are still true,” he stated.
He has often tweeted about how OpenAI has drifted from its origins as an independent research company following the Microsoft partnership. In February, he stated, “OpenAI was created as an open source (which is why I named it “Open” AI), a non-profit company to serve as a counterweight to Google, but now it has become a closed source, maximum-profit company effectively controlled by Microsoft”.
A few days ago, Musk tweeted about the legality around how OpenAI shapeshifted from a non-profit company to a for-profit company. “I’m still confused as to how a non-profit to which I donated ~$100M somehow became a $30B market cap for-profit. If this is legal, why doesn’t everyone do it?” he questioned.
Altman has responded to Musk’s claims on the podcast, ‘On With Kara Swisher’, stating, “Most of that is not true, and I think Elon knows that. We’re not controlled by Microsoft. Microsoft doesn’t even have a board seat on us, we are an independent company.”
Altman went on to call Musk “a jerk on Twitter” more than once before complimenting him. “Despite him being a jerk on Twitter, whatever I’m happy he exists in the world but I wish he would do more to look at the hard work we’re doing to get this stuff right. I think we agree on the magnitude of the downside of AGI and the need to get not only safety right,” he stated.
When questioned about what he admired about Musk, Altman said, “I think we will get to electric vehicles much faster because of him, I think we’ll get to space much faster because of him. As a citizen of the world, I’m very appreciative of that. I also like—being a jerk on Twitter aside—in many instances he’s like a very funny and warm guy”.
Even though with Musk one can never be quite sure where things stand, as of now it has all the makings of a bromance gone south.