How an Argument with Larry Page on Elon Musk’s Birthday Shaped the Trajectory of A.I.

A birthday argument between the two billionaires sparked the creation of OpenAI.

Side by side images of two men at panels, both wearing black blazers
The friendship between the two tech leaders broke down over disagreements regarding A.I. Photos by Marc Piasecki/Getty Images and Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Today (June 28) marks the 53rd birthday of Elon Musk, the billionaire known for his technology-focused ambitions across the worlds of electric vehicles, space exploration, social media and now A.I. On this day nine years ago, at Musk’s 44th birthday party, the Tesla (TSLA) and SpaceX CEO got into an unexpected argument with his longtime friend, Google (GOOGL) co-founder Larry Page, that would shape the landscape of generative A.I. as we know it today.

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In 2015, the duo had already been friends for over a decade. Musk first met Page before the Google co-founder had even received venture funding for his company, Musk said on Lex Fridman’s podcast in November. The entrepreneur would often stay at Page’s house in Palo Alto, Calif. debating into the late hours of the night on A.I. safety—a topic Musk was fascinated with at the time.

Their conversations on the emerging technology reached a head when Musk was celebrating his 44th birthday at a Napa Valley affair attended by Page. The two entered into a lengthy discussion on the merits and dangers of A.I. development that eventually became heated. While Musk argued that safeguards were needed to prevent A.I. from potentially eliminating the human race, Page retorted that machines surpassing humans in intelligence was the next stage of evolution, according to the 2023 Elon Musk biography by Walter Isaacson. Page eventually accused Musk of being a “specist” who favors the human race over other life forms. “Well, yes, I am pro-human,” responded Musk. The comment from Page was “the last straw,” he told Tucker Carlson in April 2023.

The start of different A.I. paths and OpenAI

The argument sent the two tech leaders on different paths in A.I. development. In 2014, Google acquired DeepMind, an A.I. startup that Musk had previously invested $5 million into. In response to his conversation with Page and concerns that DeepMind had a monopoly on A.I. talent, Musk pursued his rival venture. After meeting with Sam Altman, who was then the president of startup accelerator Y Combinator, the duo decided to launch OpenAI at the end of 2015. “I’m like, okay, this guy is calling me a specist. He doesn’t care about A.I. safety,” recalled Musk at the 2023 Dealbook Summit. “We’ve got to have some counterpoint here because this is no good.”

In addition to co-founding OpenAI, Musk poured millions into the startup. It helped poach Ilya Sutskever, a computer scientist who made key contributions to deep learning, from Google. This marked the nail in the coffin for his relationship with Page.

“Larry felt betrayed and was really mad at me for personally recruiting Ilya, and he refused to hang out with me anymore,” Musk told his biographer Isaacson. “And I was like, ‘Larry, if you just hadn’t been so cavalier about A.I. safety then it wouldn’t really be necessary to have some countervailing force.'”

Musk and Altman’s relationship, too, would go on to break down, with Musk stepping away from OpenAI in 2018 after he failed to incorporate it into his electric vehicle company, Tesla. The billionaire earlier this year sued both OpenAI and Altman and claimed they were prioritizing profit over the well-being of humanity in a lawsuit that has since been withdrawn.

In November 2022, A.I. officially entered the mainstream when OpenAI released ChatGPT. The launch kicked off an A.I. race among Big Tech companies and startups alike. Musk, meanwhile, launched the chatbot Grok through his new A.I. startup xAI in November.

At the heart of the current A.I. revolution are the same debates Musk and Page had back in 2015. Clashes over A.I. safeguards have become especially visible at OpenAI, where Altman was briefly ousted last year by Sutskever and other OpenAI board members concerned about his approach towards A.I. safety.

Musk continues reiterating his concerns that A.I. poses an existential threat to humanity, while Page has not publicly commented on A.I. safety in recent years. Even though the two haven’t appeared to find common ground over their differences regarding the technology, Musk last year told Fridman he wasn’t opposed to reconciling their relationship. “I’d like to be friends with Larry again. I haven’t seen him in ages,” he said.

How an Argument with Larry Page on Elon Musk’s Birthday Shaped the Trajectory of A.I.