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Those leading the AI revolution have a history of putting themselves first

Mark Zuckerberg, Sam Altman, Elon Musk and Sundar Pichai are at the forefront of the push toward artificial intelligence.

Mark Zuckerberg, Sam Altman, Elon Musk and Sundar Pichai are at the forefront of the push toward artificial intelligence. Photo: TND/Getty

The tech world has always had big personalities, but the men leading the AI revolution have a history of putting profits, petty squabbles and themselves before anything else.

Sam Altman’s OpenAI appears to have the first-mover advantage with ChatGPT.

But the news this week that Elon Musk has raised more than $US6 billion ($9 billion) for his entry into the AI market – as well as Google, Meta and Microsoft investing in their large-language models – makes it clear that AI is here to stay.

Rebecca Johnson, a researcher in the ethics of generative AI technologies at the University of Sydney, said power and money were “the age-old mover and shaker of human societies”.

“What you’re talking about is incredibly wealthy and powerful companies,” she said.

“A lot of nation states are struggling to hold their own against these corporations that are actually more powerful than some small countries.”

Elon Musk

Best known as the founder of SpaceX and an early investor in Tesla (where a legal settlement means he can call himself a founder), South African-born Musk is chasing the other big players with his new xAI start-up.

Musk was an early investor in OpenAI, but he and Altman had an acrimonious split after Musk accused the OpenAI CEO of causing the company to “radically depart from its original mission”.

After Musk launched a lawsuit accusing OpenAI of working as a de facto subsidiary of Microsoft, OpenAI responded by airing a series of emails that it said contradicted his claims.

Musk’s acquisition of Twitter is widely viewed as a failure, due to a dwindling user base and fleeing advertisers.

But owning the platform has allowed him to introduce xAI’s first publicly available generative AI chatbot to the site.

Sam Altman has led OpenAI since it was founded in 2015. Photo: Getty

Sam Altman

Before helping fund and launch OpenAI in 2015, Altman had his hand in several start-ups that failed to catch fire and spent eight days as CEO of the social media platform Reddit.

Altman is a doomsday-prepper and told The New Yorker magazine that he has “guns, gold, potassium iodide, antibiotics, batteries, water, gas masks from the Israeli Defence Force, and a big patch of land in Big Sur I can fly to” when things go bad.

Johnson said OpenAI had also recently disbanded the team it had dedicated to the long-term risks of artificial intelligence.

“The way that the OpenAI organisation has managed itself over the last six months, it has more twists and turns than a season of Neighbours,” she said.

“You’ve got these individual players with their perspectives and worldviews that are really influencing what is a new era of media and the public sphere.”

In 2021 and 2023, Altman’s sister accused him of sexual abuse in a series of Tweets.

“I’m not four years old with a 13-year-old ‘brother’ climbing into my bed non-consensually anymore,” she tweeted.

“I’ve finally accepted that you’ve always been and always will be more scared of me than I’ve been of you.”

Despite the widely publicised claims, there’s no evidence of any legal action being pursued.

Mark Zuckerberg, often mocked as looking and acting like a robot, has undergone a makeover. Photo: Getty

Mark Zuckerberg

Zuckerberg has undergone a major image refresh recently, ditching the pale, nerdy look that was personified in David Fincher’s The Social Network for a modern makeover.

Meta recently introduced its own AI onto its platforms, which it has touted as an open-source alternative to its competitors.

The privacy measures and conduct of Facebook have been litigated and examined for decades, particularly during the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

But Facebook has also been heavily criticised for allowing misinformation to be widely spread online with little recourse.

Zuckerberg – like Altman – also has a penchant for doomsday bunkers.

Sundar Pichai

The most low profile of the tech heads leading the AI charge, Pichai is CEO of Alphabet Inc and Google.

A materials engineer by trade, Pichai joined Google in 2004 and rose through the organisation until he was named CEO in 2015.

Pichai recently argued that the hallucinations prevalent in generative AI are an intrinsic feature of the technology and not something to fear.

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