Mar 3, 2024 - Technology

Musk vs. moguls: Billionaire rivalries erupt in fight for AI's future

Illustration of a human fist and robot fist facing each other.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Elon Musk, in a broadening quest to control the tech world, is feuding with a growing list of Silicon Valley rivals:

  • He's now suing OpenAI — which he co-founded — and CEO Sam Altman, accusing them of prioritizing profit over "the benefit of humanity."

Why it matters: Troves of information about both Musk and OpenAI could come to light if the case proceeds to discovery, potentially damaging reputations and throwing AI companies into chaos.

The big picture: Musk — a headstrong billionaire prone to petty feuds — and his fellow tech titans will have an outsized impact on the fate of a technology that could pose existential risks to the human race.

Zoom in: Musk is arguing that OpenAI's partnership with Microsoft violates its founding agreement.

  • "OpenAI Inc. has been transformed into a closed-source de facto subsidiary of the largest technology company in the world: Microsoft," the lawsuit says.
  • Microsoft, led by CEO Satya Nadella, has invested billions in OpenAI and is the only company with a license to use the tech behind GPT-4, OpenAI's blockbuster product.

The OpenAI feud pulled in even more Silicon Valley billionaires over the weekend, as they traded jabs on X.

  • Venture capitalist and OpenAI investor Vinod Khosla posted that Musk's lawsuit "feels like a bit of sour grapes."
  • Musk hit back, and Marc Andreessen took his side, posting, "Vinod is lobbying to ban open source."

Zoom out: This lawsuit is the latest in a growing list of Musk feuds with Silicon Valley rivals.

  • Musk, who since buying Twitter has crusaded against what he calls the "woke mind virus," vowed last week to create a competitor to Gmail in response to backlash over Google Gemini's biased image generation. When an X engineering employee asked about "XMail," Musk tweeted back: "It's coming."
  • And after news broke that OpenAI, Jeff Bezos, Nvidia and others have invested $675 million in humanoid robot startup Figure, Musk — who's working on his own robot model at Tesla — tweeted Friday: "Bring it on."

Flashback: Musk helped found OpenAI in 2015 partly in response to the work done by Google and its-then CEO Larry Page — a former friend who alarmed Musk with his vision of a digital utopia that merged AI with humans.

  • The debate over AI's "doom or boom" potential has since pitted some of the world's richest men against each other.
  • Among them are Musk, Page, Altman, Nadella and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in addition to the OpenAI board members whose attempted ouster of Altman in November sent shockwaves through the tech world.

What to watch: Governments around the world are intent on ensuring that AI has guardrails free of the whims and controls of impetuous billionaires.

  • The SEC is investigating OpenAI's internal communications to determine whether investors had been misled when Altman was (temporarily) fired by OpenAI's board, which had accused him of a lack of candor, The Wall Street Journal reports.
  • That's on top of an antitrust investigation launched by the FTC in January examining AI investments by Alphabet/Google, Microsoft, Amazon, OpenAI and Anthropic.
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