Twitter and Tesla CEO Elon Musk once played the Mr. Money Bags role to Silicon Valley’s newest darling OpenAI, the makers of ChatGPT and DALLE-2. The nonprofit has become the center of the tech world’s new obsession with AI, but a new report claims that back in 2018 Musk proposed he take over the nonprofit research lab entirely.

Musk was a well-known financier for the fledgling startup that came on the scene back in 2015. He and other big tech powerhouses like Reid Hoffman and Peter Thiel all put money totalling more than $1 billion into the venture. Musk once sat as co-chair of the group and was there when the nonprofit wanted to train its systems on Reddit posts. On Friday, Semafor reported based on several unnamed sources familiar with the matter that unfortunately for Musk, the people in charge of the lab including co-founder Greg Brockman and CEO Sam Altman both rejected the idea of a Musk takeover. This caused Musk to “depart” the OpenAI board that year to focus more on Tesla, though the company claimed Musk would keep supporting the project financially.

The report hints there was a real rivalry fermenting between Altman, a former exec at YCombinator and known big tech investor, and Musk. Musk hired Andrej Karpathy from OpenAI in 2017 to lead his autonomous driving section at Tesla.

Musk was supposed to keep putting money into the venture to the tune of $1 billion over time, but the Tesla CEO decided to cut off any new payments after he left, according to the report. This created a big hole in the company’s budget. OpenAI is effectively split between its nonprofit research lab and its for-profit subsidiary OpenAI Limited Partnership which was established in 2019. This pivot to a for-profit model was reportedly due to the company’s pivot toward the more sophisticated and more expensive machine learning Google Brain model as well as a lack of funding from Musk.

Though Altman was described by the report as a philanthropic CEO who has tried to take no financial stake in the company or refocus the company on a profit-minded mission, OpenAI signed a $1 billion partnership with Microsoft that has become a multi-billion dollar investment. The company’s since been harangued by some researchers for its closed door attitude toward sharing its model and its training data for its GPT-4 language model. The company has said this crackdown on sharing its own model was because of both the “competitive landscape” and “safety implications.”

In several tweets in the past two months, Musk seemed rather miffed that OpenAI has become a “maximum-profit company effectively controlled by Microsoft” even though the company was originally designed as an “open-source… nonprofit to serve as a counterweight to Google.” He also openly questioned how the $100 million he donated to the nonprofit could somehow transform into a $30 billion market cap. Musk has even gone so far as to limit OpenAI’s access to Twitter’s database for training purposes. He wrote “OpenAI was started as open-source & non-profit. Neither are still true.”

Ironically, Musk’s antics seem to be a part of the reason why OpenAI sought these other partnerships with big tech firms. On a Thursday episode of the On With Kara Swisher podcast, Altman finally responded to Musk’s Twitter comments, saying “Most of that is not true, and I think Elon knows that.”

He also called Musk a “jerk” but added that “he does really care, and is feeling stressed about what the future’s going to look like for humanity.” He also said that Musk “really does care about the future with AGI” referring to a so-called “artificial general intelligence.” AGI is still just a theory, though Altman and others at OpenAI are obsessed with the idea.

Musk is known for his domineering ways, such as reportedly firing employees who criticize him or give him bad news. Not being happy that OpenAI has become the new hotness, Musk has reportedly been in talks with an ex-DeepMind AI researcher about creating his own alternative to ChatGPT, one that will combat the so-called “woke AI” of his once-partners and now rivals.


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