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Sorry, Twitter. Elon Found His Next Shiny Object.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 24: Tesla CEO Elon Musk leaves the Phillip Burton Federal Building on January 24, 2023 in San Francisco, California. Musk testified at a trial regarding a lawsuit that has investors suing Tesla and Musk over his August 2018 tweets saying he was taking Tesla private with funding that he had secured. The tweet was found to be false and cost shareholders billions of dollars when Tesla’s stock price began to fluctuate wildly allegedly based on the tweet. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) (Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images North America)

For all his childish behavior on Twitter, Elon Musk would still like us to believe in his noble ambitions to make the world a better place. His space exploration company will make humans an interplanetary species, electric car maker Tesla Inc. will move us toward sustainable energy and his newly acquired Twitter will become a haven of free speech and healthy debate.

Actually that last goal isn’t going so well. Twitter stands little hope of becoming a financial or cultural success under Musk as he continues to drain the online platform of talent, revenue sources and integrity. His latest antic has been to deflect criticism of Dilbert creator Scott Adams for a bizarre and racially offensive tirade on YouTube and blame “the media” for being racist instead.   

Luckily a new mission has come along to draw Musk’s attention from the spiraling fortunes of his $44 billion purchase. Musk has been approaching artificial intelligence researchers in recent weeks amid the explosion of attention around ChatGPT to look into forming a new research lab. The goal is to build an alternative to the chatbot launched by San Francisco startup OpenAI, according to The Information.

Musk’s next big quest seems be making better AI, one of the most transformative inventions of modern times. But realistically, Musk can’t run a serious OpenAI rival as a side hustle. It would cost him enormous amounts of time and money.

ChatGPT is powered by a large language model trained on Microsoft Corp.’s supercomputer, one of the most powerful in the world, and getting access to similar computing power will be increasingly difficult as big tech firms centralize control of such systems for their own generative AI projects. Building and training a large language model can cost millions of dollars each week in computing costs, while hiring a batch of AI scientists will be tricky at a time when such talent is in high demand. 

This is probably a serious pursuit though, given Musk’s history of investing in the most advanced AI projects. Close to a decade ago he backed both DeepMind and OpenAI, two companies competing to build super-intelligent machines or artificial general intelligence, before they were bought by Google and Microsoft, respectively. He has since complained that OpenAI was “training AI to be woke” and that big tech swayed the initial goals of the former startups.

Musk is right about the growing corporate influence on AI research and also right to be uneasy about it, but the spectacle he has made of Twitter doesn’t inspire confidence in his ability to do any better. As The Information’s story hints, Musk might be eager to check out of the disaster he created at Twitter and focus on something else. 

The billionaire’s capricious behavior and policies have already driven advertisers away from the social media platform, and he badly fumbled the launch of Twitter’s new subscription service Blue. Twitter, which has about 250 million users regularly visiting the site for free, has reportedly managed to get just 180,000 of them in the US to subscribe to the $11 monthly plan. 

Ad revenue meanwhile shows no sign of improving after Musk’s reckless loosening of content rules led to an increase in hate speech and harassment on the site — and an early exodus of advertisers. Some 625 of the top 1,000 brands who were advertising on Twitter in September 2022, a month before Musk bought the company, were no longer spending on the platform in early January, according to data provided to CNN by digital marketing analysis firm Pathmatics by Sensor Tower. Advertisers have complained of losing their points of contact, not knowing who is still around at Twitter and emails being sent into an “abyss.” 

All in all, you might think Musk’s stepping back would bode well for Twitter. But there is still the question of who would take his place. Tech newsletter Platformer reported on Tuesday that Musk appeared to favor Musk loyalist Steve Davis as Twitter’s next CEO. Davis, known for working 16-hour-days, is currently on loan from his normal day job as CEO of one of the billionaire’s other firms, the Boring Company. Twitter staff told me last December that Davis was already running day-to-day business at Twitter, and that he was “always around.” That month, Musk reportedly told Davis to cut $500 million in costs. The executive cut around $1 billion instead, while sleeping in the office with his partner and newborn.  

Davis clearly fits into Musk’s “extremely hardcore” culture, but that doesn’t mean he is the right person to turn around Twitter’s financial fortunes. After all, he has overseen the advertising and subscription problems just as Musk has.

Davis has worked with Musk for 20 years, having joined SpaceX in 2003 as one of the company’s first employees, but his work at Boring also involved many unfinished projects. When Musk first announced his ideas for the tunnel construction company, he teased a 350-mile route between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Since then its most substantial project has been a 1.7-mile tunnel under a convention center in Las Vegas. 

With any luck, Musk will manage to stave off a Twitter bankruptcy. But the company’s trajectory toward becoming an unruly backwater in social media, run by a skeleton crew and increasingly devoid of fun or useful content, doesn’t look much different.   

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Google, Twitter Court Cases Won’t Break the Internet: Stephen L. Carter

• Zuckerberg May Have Better Luck With Elon’s ‘Blue Tick’: Parmy Olson

• ChatGPT Shows Just How Far Europe Lags in Tech: Lionel Laurent

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. A former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, she is author of “We Are Anonymous.”

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