Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Elon Musk might have found his big post-Twitter fascination

For all his cranky behaviour on Twitter, Elon Musk might still like us to believe in his noble ambitions to make the world a better place. His space exploration company will make humans an interplanetary species, electric car maker Tesla will move us toward sustainable energy, and his newly acquired Twitter will become a haven of free speech and healthy debate.

Actually, that last goal isn’t going so well. Twitter stands little hope of becoming a financial or cultural success under Musk as his actions drain the online platform of talent, revenue and integrity. His latest antic has been to deflect criticism of Dilbert creator Scott Adams for a bizarre and racially offensive tirade and blame “the media" for being racist instead. Luckily, a new mission has come along to draw Musk’s attention from the spiralling crisis of his $44 billion purchase. Musk has been approaching artificial intelligence (AI) researchers amid a buzz around ChatGPT to look into forming a new research lab. The goal is to build an alternative to OpenAI’s chatbot.

Musk’s next big quest seems be making better AI. But realistically, he cannot run a real OpenAI rival as a side hustle. It would cost enormous amounts of time and money. ChatGPT is powered by a large language model (LLM) trained on Microsoft’s powerful supercomputer and getting access to similar power will get difficult as Big Tech firms centralize control of such systems for their own generative AI projects. An LLM can cost millions of dollars each week in computing costs, while hiring a batch of AI scientists will be tricky at a time when such talent is in high demand.

This is probably a serious pursuit though. Close to a decade ago, Musk backed both DeepMind and OpenAI, two companies competing to build super-intelligent machines or artificial general intelligence, before they were bought by Google and Microsoft respectively. He has since complained that OpenAI was “training AI to be woke" and that Big Tech swayed the initial goals of the former startups.

Musk is right about the growing corporate influence on AI research and also right to be uneasy about it, but the spectacle he has made of Twitter doesn’t inspire confidence in his ability to do better. The billionaire’s capricious behaviour and policies have already driven advertisers away from the social media platform, and he fumbled the launch of Twitter’s new subscription service Blue. Twitter, which has about 250 million users regularly visiting the site free, has managed to get just 180,000 of them in the US to subscribe to its $11 monthly plan.

Ad revenue meanwhile shows no sign of improving after Musk’s reckless loosening of content rules led to an increase in hate speech and harassment on the site—and an early exodus of advertisers. Some 625 of the top 1,000 brands who were advertising on Twitter in September 2022, a month before Musk bought the company, were no longer spending on the platform in early January, according to data provided to CNN by digital marketing analysis firm Pathmatics by Sensor Tower. Advertisers have complained of losing their points of contact, not knowing who is still around at Twitter and emails being sent into an ‘abyss’.

All in all, you might think Elon Musk’s stepping back would bode well for Twitter. But there is still the question of who would take his place. Tech newsletter Platformer reported on Tuesday that Musk appeared to favour Musk loyalist Steve Davis as Twitter’s next CEO. Davis, known for working 16-hour-days, is currently on loan from his normal day job as CEO of one of the billionaire’s other firms, the Boring Company. Twitter staff told me last December that Davis was already running day-to-day business at Twitter, and that he was “always around." That month, Musk reportedly told Davis to cut $500 million in costs. The executive cut around $1 billion instead, while sleeping in the office with his partner and newborn.

Davis clearly fits into Musk’s “extremely hardcore" culture, but that doesn’t mean he is the right person to turn around Twitter’s financial fortunes. After all, he has overseen the advertising and subscription problems just as Musk has.

Davis has worked with Musk for 20 years, having joined SpaceX in 2003 as one of the company’s first employees, but his work at Boring also involved many unfinished projects. When Musk first announced his ideas for the tunnel construction company, he teased a 350-mile route between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Since then its most substantial project has been a 1.7-mile tunnel under a convention centrw in Las Vegas.

With any luck, Elon Musk will manage to stave off a Twitter bankruptcy. But the company’s trajectory towards becoming an unruly backwater in social media, run by a skeletal crew and increasingly devoid of fun or useful content, does not really look much different.

Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology.


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Updated: 01 Mar 2023, 11:26 PM IST
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