Thursday, July 25, 2024

Elon Musk vs OpenAI: Here’s a Timeline of the Decade-Long Rivalry

On February 29, Elon Musk filed a lawsuit against OpenAI and its CEO, Sam Altman. The primary allegation was that the company breached its founding agreement with Musk—who was one of the co-founders of the AI firm—by entering a partnership with Microsoft and functioning as its “closed-source de facto subsidiary”, intending to maximise profits. This, as per the billionaire, goes against the commitment made to run as a nonprofit and keep the project open-source.

The lawsuit was filed with a San Francisco court, and the first hearing is yet to take place. Meanwhile, OpenAI, on Wednesday, retaliated against the allegations by publishing an extensive post containing email correspondence with Musk dating back to 2015 and said it would move to “dismiss all of Elon’s claims”.

OpenAI alleged that Musk wanted OpenAI to merge with Tesla or take full control of the organisation himself. “We couldn’t agree to terms on a for-profit with Elon because we felt it was against the mission for any individual to have absolute control over OpenAI,” stated the post, which is authored by OpenAI co-founders Greg Brockman, Ilya Sutskever, John Schulman, Sam Altman, and Wojciech Zaremba. The post also shows through email interactions that the billionaire wanted OpenAI to “attach to Tesla as its cash cow”. This contradicts Musk’s intentions of keeping the AI firm nonprofit if true.

Another email written by Sutskever stated, “As we get closer to building AI, it will make sense to start being less open. The Open in openAI means that everyone should benefit from the fruits of AI after it’s built, but it’s totally OK not to share the science,” to which Musk replied, “Yup.” This email would directly contradict Musk’s allegation that the AI firm is turning closed-source.

A report by The Verge points out based on the filings in the court that a founder’s agreement is not a contract or a binding agreement that can be breached. As such, Musk’s allegations against OpenAI can potentially be voided.

“We’re sad that it’s come to this with someone whom we’ve deeply admired—someone who inspired us to aim higher, then told us we would fail, started a competitor, and then sued us when we started making meaningful progress towards OpenAI’s mission without him,” the statement said.

One thing OpenAI’s retaliation proves is that the rivalry between the two parties is not a recent one. It goes as far back as 2015. For those who are not entirely familiar with the two’s history, here is the series of events that connect the dots and make sense of this developing saga.

Elon Musk vs OpenAI: Timeline of the decade-long rivalry

Those who follow Musk on X or are active enthusiasts in controversies in the tech space are no strangers to the antics of the second richest person in the world (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos overtook him to the top spot on Tuesday). The Tesla CEO is known for his unfiltered social media posts, interviews, and impulsive decision-making. From buying X after making a social media post to rebranding the entire platform in a week, and from replying to an antisemitic post to hurling expletives at Disney CEO Bob Iger for boycotting advertising on the platform (among many others) and blaming them for killing the platform, the list is quite long.

But these antics are not new. In 2015, Musk co-founded OpenAI along with Altman, President and Chairman Greg Brockman and several others. Musk was also the largest investor in the company, which dedicated itself to developing artificial intelligence, as per a report by TechCrunch. However, to everyone’s surprise, the billionaire resigned from his board seat in 2018.

The beginning of the feud

The reason behind Musk’s resignation depends on who you ask. The X owner cited “a potential future conflict [of interest]” as his role as the CEO of Tesla since the electric vehicle giant was also developing AI for its self-driving cars. However, a Semafor report stated, citing unnamed sources, that Altman felt that the billionaire felt OpenAI fell behind other players like Google, and instead proposed to take over the company himself, which was promptly rejected by the board, and led to his exit. OpenAI has now confirmed this.

However, the exit was merely the beginning. Just a year later, OpenAI announced that it was creating a for-profit entity to fulfil its ambitious goals and pay the dues. The same year, Microsoft invested $1 billion into the AI firm after finalising a multi-year partnership. It was also the same year when GPT-2 was announced and generated a lot of buzz online.

The events were interesting as not only was the company moving in the opposite direction to what Musk philosophised, but the company also witnessed unprecedented success — both financially and technologically, which is something the billionaire reportedly did not think was possible.

Arrival of ChatGPT

However, till 2022, nothing more was heard from either party on the topic. In November 2022, ChatGPT, the AI-powered chatbot that arguably started the AI arms race, was launched by OpenAI. Soon, the silence was broken by Musk. Replying to a post where a user asked the chatbot to write a tweet in his style, he alleged that OpenAI had access to X database for training, and he pulled the plug on it. This was also the first time when Musk publicly said, “OpenAI was started as open-source & non-profit. Neither are still true.”

The billionaire did not stop there. Throughout 2023, he took shots at the company multiple times. In February, he claimed that OpenAI was created to be open-source, and that’s why Musk named it OpenAI. He added, “But now it has become a closed-source, maximum-profit company effectively controlled by Microsoft.”

Again, in March 2023, he posted, “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?” Interestingly, the allegations in these three posts are also the main accusations mentioned in the lawsuit.

And that brings us to the present time as we wait for the lawsuit to begin. The lawsuit will also mark the beginning of the climax of the Elon Musk vs OpenAI saga, which has been building for almost a decade. To the casual spectator, it might simply be a corporate feud between two stakeholders, but a deeper inspection shows that it is much bigger than that. On one side is the serial entrepreneur known for repeated success and a strong (sometimes dogmatic) philosophical take on technology; and on the other is the organisation hailed to be the pioneer of generative AI technology which could be on the cusp of developing artificial general intelligence. Whichever way the lawsuit goes, it can potentially change the course of AI as well.

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