Elon Musk is a ‘jerk’ but was a ‘talent magnet’ for OpenAI early on, admits Sam Altman—who now faces direct competition from him

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While Elon Musk recently launched an A.I. startup to compete against OpenAI, not that long ago he cofounded the now-famous company—maker of A.I. chatbots ChatGPT and GPT-4—and helped it in significant ways.

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman described Musk’s early role during an appearance on the In Good Company podcast this week.

“Elon was definitely a talent magnet and attention magnet, for sure, and also just like has some real superpowers that were super helpful to us in those early days, aside from all of those things,” Altman told host Nicolai Tangen.

He didn’t give examples of those “superpowers,” but venture capitalist Marc Andreessen recently outlined the psychological traits that make Musk “the paramount example” of an entrepreneur who “can’t turn it off.” 

This year, Musk has expressed disgust with the direction taken by OpenAI, and in July he launched xAI, which he said is “definitely in competition” with Altman’s company. xAI’s loftier goal, in typical Musk style, is to “understand the true nature of the universe.” To that end he’s brought in top A.I. talent from Google, DeepMind, Microsoft, and his own Tesla

Musk left OpenAI’s board of directors in 2018. He’d offered to lead the organization, but walked away from it after being rebuffed, according to Semafor.

One of his beefs today is that he cofounded OpenAI as a nonprofit in 2015, but then it switched to a “capped profit” model in 2019—the same year it received a $1 billion investment from Microsoft, with more billions to follow.

Musk’s unhappiness with OpenAI became increasingly clear earlier this year as the company’s valuation soared following the launch of ChatGPT, with the A.I. chatbot becoming one of the most quickly adopted products of all time.

He tweeted in February: “OpenAI was created as an open source (which is why I named it “Open” AI), non-profit company to serve as a counterweight to Google, but now it has become a closed source, maximum-profit company effectively controlled by Microsoft.” 

Altman, while admitting OpenAI has taken an unconventional path in many ways, contests this characterization of the partnership with Microsoft, as does Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. But Musk, in a May interview with CNBC, said, “I do worry that Microsoft actually may be more in control than say the leadership team at OpenAI realizes.” 

He also complained in March about the fact that OpenAI’s change from a nonprofit model was made after he had donated millions to it.

“I’m still confused as to how a non-profit to which I donated ~$100M somehow became a $30B market cap for-profit,” he tweeted. “If this is legal, why doesn’t everyone do it?” Doubts later arose about the actual amount he gave, but it seems clear that he did donate millions of dollars to the then-nonprofit.

Altman’s remarks on Musk have been mixed. In May, Altman said during a speech in London that “learning from Elon about what is just, like, possible to do” had been “super valuable.” 

But he told the On With Kara Swisher podcast in March, “I mean, he’s a jerk, whatever else you want to say about him—he has a style that is not a style that I’d want to have for myself.” 

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