How can it not be awkward when you help oust a CEO who returns five days later with strong support from employees and investors? That’s where OpenAI chief scientist and cofounder Ilya Sutskever currently finds himself, and Elon Musk thinks he should jump ship for Tesla or xAI.
Last month, Sutskever joined other OpenAI board members in firing CEO Sam Altman for vague reasons, kicking off a short-lived but dramatic corporate saga. With help from Microsoft and other investors, OpenAI quickly reinstated Altman and then set about revamping its board.
Altman made a point to mention Sutskever in a statement about his return, writing: “I harbor zero ill will towards him. While Ilya will no longer serve on the board, we hope to continue our working relationship.”
But on Friday, Business Insider published a report suggesting Sutskever is in a state of limbo and has recently become “invisible” at OpenAI. When an X user shared that article in a post and wrote that Sutskever should join Tesla, Musk replied, “or xAI.”
AI recruiting battle
Musk started xAI in March and last month announced Grok, its AI chatbot competing against OpenAI’s ChatGPT. But if AI history had unfolded a little differently, Musk might today be more associated with OpenAI. Musk helped start, fund, and lure key talent to OpenAI in 2015, when it launched as a nonprofit—and he persuaded Sutskever, who had been at Google, to join OpenAI.
“That was one of the toughest recruiting battles I’ve ever had,” Musk told the Lex Fridman Podcast. It was also “the key moment,” he addded, in the friendship breakup between Musk and Google cofounder Larry Page.
Musk, who had been on OpenAI’s board, left on a sour note in 2018 after a power struggle. Shortly after, OpenAI, needing capital and computing resources, switched to a capped-profit model and started accepting hefty investments from Microsoft.
That partnership, which antitrust authorities in the UK are now looking into, did not go over well with Musk, who tweeted earlier this year: “OpenAI was created as an open source (which is why I named it “Open” AI), non-profit company to serve as a counterweight to Google, but now it has become a closed source, maximum-profit company effectively controlled by Microsoft. Not what I intended at all.”
Sutskever’s ‘moral compass’
After the OpenAI board fired Altman last month, Musk wrote, “Given the risk and power of advanced AI, the public should be informed of why the board felt they had to take such drastic action.” Musk has long warned of the potential dangers of AI but also sees its promise.
Helen Toner, an academic who was on the OpenAI board before resigning after Altman’s return, recently told the Wall Street Journal that the CEO firing “wasn’t about AI safety, it was about a lack of trust.” And Sutskever himself backtracked after Altman returned, writing on X, “I deeply regret my participation in the board’s actions.”
“I think we should be concerned about this because I think Ilya actually has a strong moral compass,” he said. “He really sweats it over questions of what is right. And if Ilya felt strongly enough to want to fire Sam, well, I think the world should know what was that reason.”
If Sutskever were to jump ship for xAI or Tesla—or any other firm, for that matter—it would be a major development in the AI talent wars. As Musk told the Lex Fridman Podcast, Sutskever’s recruitment in 2015 “was really the linchpin for OpenAI being successful.”
This story was originally featured on Fortune.com