Elon Musk vs. Everyone: The new fight in AI

(Illustration: Emil Lendof/WSJ/; Bloomberg)
(Illustration: Emil Lendof/WSJ/; Bloomberg)

Summary

The billionaire is taking aim at Microsoft, Google and OpenAI’s Sam Altman—as he looks to build his nascent xAI.

The AI wars have begun, and the humans are throwing the first punches.

There are seemingly countless artificial-intelligence startups in Silicon Valley vying to own the future, but in the past week or so Elon Musk has been working to make it all about his nascent xAI against the Big Dogs.

In tweets and a blockbuster lawsuit this past week against OpenAI, the billionaire is framing his rivals as fundamentally flawed and unworthy: Google is woke, Microsoft is overreaching and Sam Altman is two-faced.

Musk, who learned how to throw a punch on the tough streets of South Africa, isn’t messing around when it comes to what he has described as the “civilizational risk" that AI carries if it falls into the wrong hands—or the potential fortunes it could create for whoever cracks the coding to breathe humanlike reasoning into machines.

His 35-page complaint filed in a San Francisco court late Thursday is built on what he perceives as the hypocrisy of Altman. According to the lawsuit, when Altman and Musk started OpenAI years ago they agreed it would be a not-for-profit entity to counter the greed of Google—only to have OpenAI, under Altman’s control, later pivot toward moneymaking ventures with Microsoft.

The themes of betrayal and scheming alleged by Musk, who parted with OpenAI in 2018 after a dispute, could easily be plot points in HBO’s “Westworld," a TV series about killer robots rising up against their morally broke corporate masters.

The lawsuit claims that OpenAI and Altman—by doing deals with Microsoft—have chosen to use their AI technology “not for the benefit of humanity, but as proprietary technology to maximize profits for literally the largest company in the world."

No mention was made in the lawsuit of Musk’s own AI ambitions separate from OpenAI, such as his founding of xAI last year as a rival or its launch of its own chatbot called Grok to compete against Altman’s ChatGPT. Or Musk’s work at Tesla, where he is chief executive, to develop humanoid robots.

When announcing xAI in July, Musk said his preference, after years of warning about the dangers of the technology, would have been a pause in developing advanced versions of AI that seek to achieve—what he calls—digital superintelligence. He acknowledged that such hope “doesn’t seem realistic."

Instead, Musk is offering up xAI as an alternative to rivals, which he has accused of having liberal biases. He describes his effort as seeking good and being “maximally curious."

“There’s some value to there being multiple players in the AI space," Musk said last month during a public event on his social-media platform, X. “You don’t want it to be just a monopoly or duopoly."

Think Coke vs. Pepsi but with robot minds at stake.

And, in the days before the OpenAI lawsuit, Musk was on X doing his best to highlight weaknesses in both Google and Microsoft.

He amplified criticisms that Google’s AI chatbot, dubbed Gemini, was giving responses around race and ethnicity that seemed to some users as overly politically correct and, in some cases, laughably wrong when it came to history, such as showing Nazi-era German soldiers as being racially diverse.

“Given that the Gemini AI will be at the heart of every Google product and YouTube, this is extremely alarming!" Musk tweeted this past week.

That tweet was one of several criticisms he posted that eventually, according to Musk, brought a call from a high-ranking Google executive to assure him steps were being taken to fix things.

“My response to him was that I doubted that Google’s woke bureaucratic blob would *allow* him to fix it," Musk said. “Unless those who caused this are exited from Google, nothing will change, except to make the bias less obvious and more pernicious."

Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai told his staff the chatbot’s responses were unacceptable and pledged to “fix it at scale."

All of the attention was worse than just bad headlines for Google.

“Gemini is not just a PR disaster—worse, it’s a recruiting disaster," tweeted Lulu Cheng Meservey, a longtime tech executive and former chief communications officer at Activision Blizzard. “Imagine being a researcher who worked long and hard on Gemini Pro 1.5 to have the technical accomplishment be overshadowed by this nonsense. Why would new top talent accept a job offer from a place like that?"

Around the same time, Musk was also complaining in numerous tweets about buying a new computer only to find that he was being asked to create a Microsoft account, which, he claimed, “means giving their AI access to my account." He later added that “since they now require that you use their services just to use your computer, @Microsoft can effectively shut off your computer!"

As Musk casts aspersions on Google and Microsoft, his lawsuit reopens questions about Altman’s ambitions—questions that the company had hoped to move past. Late last year, Altman was briefly fired as CEO by OpenAI’s board, which said it had lost confidence in him, only to be brought back amid pressure from Microsoft.

Musk has also acknowledged the spending war to fund AI companies’ development, saying recently it will take “at least single digit billions in hardware to have a seat at the adult table rather than the kiddies’ table and next year it’s probably in the tens of billions of hardware to remain at the adults’ table."

The expense behind creating the technology is what necessitated OpenAI’s evolution as an organization beyond being a simple not-for-profit, Altman has said.

OpenAI concluded it wasn’t equipped to operate as a not-for-profit because it was becoming too costly for the amounts of computer power needed to train the software that mimics the way humans think.

“No one wanted to fund this in any way," Altman told The Wall Street Journal last year. “It was a really hard time."

The solution was to create a for-profit arm. This structure allowed Altman to raise the billions of dollars he believed was needed to carry on the mission, including commitments for as much as $13 billion from Microsoft, giving the tech giant effectively a 49% stake in the earnings of OpenAI’s for-profit arm.

And Musk isn’t the only one claiming the moral high ground. Altman has also framed his efforts in a similar way, worrying about what could happen if AI is deployed recklessly.

Neither man’s take, perhaps, is that surprising. The burgeoning field of AI is full of heady thoughts, including a question that carries hues of godlike hubris: Does an AI take on the image of its maker?

It’s a debate Musk welcomes.

“If that is true, in whose image would you want the AI to be made?" Musk asked last month. “People should think about that."

Write to Tim Higgins at tim.higgins@wsj.com

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