In April Elon Musk told right-wing commentator Tucker Carlson that he was starting a project to compete with ChatGPT and “build a maximum truth-seeking AI that tries to understand the nature of the universe.”
Today, Musk unveiled that new artificial intelligence venture. It’s called xAI. The company’s spare landing page reiterates that goal of understanding the universe and lists 11 AI researchers — all ostensibly men — who have made significant contributions to the AI field in recent years, working at companies such as Google, DeepMind and OpenAI.
The crew is an “all-star founding team,” according to Linxi “Jim” Fan, an AI researcher at Nvidia. “I’m really impressed with the talent density — I’ve read too many articles by them to count,” he writes in a LinkedIn post.
One of the company’s co-founders, Greg Wang, said in a tweet that xAI aims to take AI to the next level by developing a mathematical “theory of everything” for large neural networks, the machine learning technology that has dominated AI for the past decade. “This AI will enable anyone to understand our mathematical universe in ways previously unimaginable,” he wrote.
Like many new AI projects, Musk’s is motivated by concern and perhaps some FOMO over ChatGPT’s meteoric rise. He spoke of xAI as a response to the bot, which he suggested has political biases, and criticized its creator, startup OpenAI, for being secretive and too cozy with its backer Microsoft.
Musk’s ill-feeling is perhaps compounded by the fact that he co-founded OpenAI in 2015, but cut ties with what was then a non-profit organization three years later after reportedly failing to take full control of to take. (The company became a for-profit venture in 2019.) And Musk has recently joined those who warn that AI could pose an existential threat to humanity and entrench the power of giants like Microsoft and Google.
Musk is no stranger to risky bets, but the little that has been revealed about xAI’s goals sounds a little strange. ChatGPT and its rivals, such as Google’s Bard, are built on deep learning, and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman has said it takes entirely new ideas to move beyond existing systems. Researching the basics of the technology can help you find them.
But much of the recent progress in AI has resulted from making existing systems bigger and deploying more computing power and data. And the sweeping changes AI is expected to bring to technology and other industries in the coming years will come from the deployment of that largely mature technology.
At this stage, xAI probably doesn’t seem to have the cloud computing power needed to match OpenAI, Microsoft, and Google. And the relatively small team of AI researchers doesn’t look earth shattering compared to the hundreds each of those established companies can deploy on AI projects. The only person involved who has worked on AI risk in the past is xAI’s sole advisor, Dan Hendrycks, who is director of the nonprofit Center for AI Safety and coordinated a recent public statement from technology leaders about the existential threat posed by AI can shape.
While his supposedly giant-killing AI project starts out small, Musk naturally has some significant resources to draw from. The new company will work closely with Twitter and Tesla, according to the xAI website. Twitter’s data from conversations on the platform is well suited for training large language models such as the one behind ChatGPT, and Tesla is now designing its own specialized AI chips and has extensive experience building large computer clusters for AI, which can be used to increase xAI’s cloud computing power. Tesla is also building a humanoid robot, a project that could be aided by xAI in the future.
But perhaps the rhetoric of xAI at this early stage is mostly about attracting talent. AI expertise has never been more in demand. The most pressing problem for a new entrant, even one backed by Musk’s reputation and deep pockets, is showing he can attract the researchers needed to eventually become competitive.
The huge goals Musk has set for himself – challenging existing AI giants and protecting humanity from harmful AI – make his tiny new AI company look even smaller. Many AI researchers who are also concerned about AI’s trajectory seem to see the problem as one that requires more transparency and collaboration, rather than a lone genius with a small group of all-stars.