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What is xAI, Elon Musk’s new AI company, and will it succeed?

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Elon Musk is launching a new company called xAI

Chesnot/Getty Images

What is xAI?

xAI is Elon Musk’s just-announced artificial intelligence company. Its 12-strong team plans to “understand the true nature of the universe”, according to an announcement posted on the xAI website.

xAI is separate to X Corp, the umbrella company of Twitter, according to the venture’s website, but will “work closely” with Musk’s other companies, including Twitter and Tesla, which uses AI for its self-driving cars. “I don’t know what the deal with the Xs is,” says Catherine Flick at De Montfort University, UK. “He obviously just likes Xs.”

Why has Musk launched it?

It is an extension of Musk’s longstanding interest in AI and his return to the field after pulling funding from OpenAI back in 2018. Musk had been the primary bankroller for the company – which created ChatGPT – at its launch in 2015, appearing on stage at an academic conference announcing $1 billion in funding.

Musk reportedly withdrew from OpenAI after he bid to take over running it, worrying it had lost ground to Google in developing AI technology, and was rejected by co-founder Sam Altman. Since then, he has taken potshots at OpenAI on Twitter, including criticising a shift in how it was funded when it went from being a not-for-profit company to a for-profit firm with a $30 billion valuation.

“He’s the sort of person who has a lot of money and can afford to dump billions of dollars into vanity projects,” says Flick. Musk didn’t respond to a request to comment for this story.

Who is involved?

The dozen named initial members of xAI’s team include former employees of DeepMind, OpenAI, Google Research, Microsoft Research and Tesla, as well as researchers at the University of Toronto in Canada.

Although the team is drawn from a diverse range of companies, its gender make-up is significantly less diverse: all are men. “He’s brought together a bunch of men to work on understanding the universe, whatever that means, which is, as a philosopher… it’s just the cheapest version of armchair philosophy,” says Flick.

What will the company aim to do?

Besides attempting to understand the universe, it seems likely that xAI will try to develop what Musk deems a safer, fairer AI system. Musk has previously signed a letter calling for a pause on the development of AI systems, citing safety fears about their untrammelled advance.

“A lot of people who know Musk tend to think he’s well-intentioned and he’s worried about AI [being] developed in a wrong way, and he thinks he can do it in a safer way, but it’s hard to tell whether that’s sincere,” says Carissa Véliz at the University of Oxford. “It’s hard to separate what is genuine intention from what is an ego trip.”

Véliz points out there is hypocrisy in someone who earlier this year was saying AI development should be paused now limbering up to take part in the race. “It seems like he’s doing exactly the opposite, further fuelling the arms race of AI,” says Véliz.

She is also concerned about the potential links between xAI and another Musk-backed project he called TruthGPT. “He said he was concerned about ChatGPT because it was being trained to be politically correct and he wanted a chatbot that would speak the truth – implying the truth was sexist and racist. That is incredibly concerning.”

Will it succeed?

That’s the billion-dollar question. “It’s impossible to tell,” says Véliz. “Succeeding in what? It’s not even clear what the objective is.”

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