Admire him or despise him, Elon Musk is the obvious pick for TechCentral’s International Newsmaker of the Year for 2023 – and for all sorts of reasons.
The world’s richest man – worth US$228-billion at the time of writing, or $47-billion more than second-placed Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com – has his fingers in many pies, from space exploration to electric cars to artificial intelligence to cryptocurrencies to social media.
Musk realised long before other manufacturers that electric vehicles must enter the mainstream, with his clean-energy Tesla vehicles a response to the climate crisis enveloping the world.
Not that his vision is centred only on Earth. His SpaceX rockets are the global leaders in space travel, chosen by Nasa to build the ship that aims to place astronauts back on the moon for the first time in more than 50 years.
Musk’s rough timeline for that is three years, with two more years to land on Mars. He aims to make rockets as reusable as aeroplanes: his plan for his fortune, “to use the money to get humanity to Mars and preserve the light of consciousness”.
He has undoubtedly furthered the interests of tech and facilitated extraordinary entrepreneurial developments, hoping in the words of the late Steve Jobs “to make a dent in the Earth”.
But he also made wild claims about saving the planet – as long as it is he who is saving it – and his attitude seems to be that as long as that’s his mission, anything in his way has to be obliterated. His eccentric approach to regulations is both refreshing and concerning.
At Tesla, for instance he would not allow yellow “caution” tape to be used on the factory floors because it offended his sensibilities. Employees there reported being physically hurt – burnt by molten metal, for instance – because of a lack of safety protocols. Jim Cantrell, an employee at SpaceX, recalls always having to sleep with his cellphone next to his bed and being woken to tirades of yelling and abuse at 3am. “He’ll find your weakness and make sure you cracked,” Cantrell said.
When Musk impulsively bought Twitter (now X), he fired 80% of the staff and told those who were left to be sure to work “in hardcore mode”.
As 2023 progressed, he seemed to become even more mercurial. He invited Mark Zuckerberg to a cage fight – whose response was, “send location” – and then appeared to chicken out. He initially supported Ukraine in the war with Russia and then seemed to renege on his promises; he endorsed an antisemitic post on X that attacked Jewish people for pushing “dialectical hatred” and then, when advertisers threatened to boycott X in protest, he swore at them and accused them of blackmail. “Tell it to the Earth, tell it you’re trying to kill X,” he said.
So, we have Musk, the classic, flawed hero of literature, with far too much power vested in him.
He is a narcissist, emotionally labile and opiniated, and has messianic tendencies. Some would say his views are becoming more reactionary. But he is also visionary, determined, passionate and not afraid to insist that his often-grandiose ideas are translated into reality.
As New York Times columnist Kara Swisher writes: “He is deeply human, with all the positive and negative characteristics that suggests. To me, Elon Musk has become the id of tech. His desires and needs are never unconscious or hidden; they are all out there in the brightest Technicolor for all to see. In the oddest of ways, he is transparent, so utterly direct, that it is unsettling and even painful at times to those around him.”
First Runner-Up: Sam Altman
Artificial intelligence has undoubtedly been the big story in tech (and business) in 2023. And no person has been the public face of AI more than Sam Altman, the hired/fired/re-hired CEO of OpenAI.
OpenAI’s ChatGPT catapulted AI into public consciousness this year. It’s the start of a revolution that will change the world.
Tech analysts believe that generative AI will reorientate the way we work and engage with the world; unlock creativity and scientific discoveries; and allow humanity to achieve previously unimaginable feats.
Forecasters at PwC predict AI could boost the global economy by US$15-trillion by 2030. Microsoft is investing $10-billion in OpenAI and has announced plans to integrate generative AI into its Office software and search engine Bing.
Google declared a “Code Red” corporate emergency in response to the success of ChatGPT and rushed its own search-orientated chatbot, Bard, to market. And Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in February that he AI “race starts today; we’re going to move, and move fast”.
Altman has expressed doubt about whether history will consider the revolution he’s leading a technological or a societal change.
AI will upend politics (deepfakes are already a major concern for many presidential elections); creative industries and labour (AI was at the heart of the Hollywood writers’ strike); and education.
Altman co-founded OpenAI as a non-profit in 2015, with Elon Musk and four others — Ilya Sutskever, Greg Brockman, John Schulman and Wojciech Zaremba. Their idea was to create “a computer that can think like a human in every way and use that for the maximal benefit of humanity.”
On 17 November, Altman was fired by the members of OpenAI’s board who were concerned about his opinions on AI security, and believed the CEO had not been “completely candid” with them. But after some internal turmoil and resignations – and significant pressure from Microsoft – he was reinstated as CEO a few weeks later.
ChatGPT on Sam Altman
TechCentral asked ChatGPT to write 150 words on Sam Altman’s 2023 using the prompt, “Write 150 words on Sam Altman’s year in 2023”. This was its response (edited for style):
“Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, has been named as the CEO of the Year by Time magazine for 2023. He has been recognised for his exceptional leadership and achievements in the business world. Under his guidance, OpenAI has made significant strides in the field of artificial intelligence. In November 2023 (incorrect – Ed), OpenAI launched ChatGPT, a revolutionary tool that has the potential to transform the way we communicate. Altman has been instrumental in driving the success of OpenAI and has been a vocal advocate for the responsible development of AI. He has also been named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine. Altman’s contributions to the tech industry have been immense, and his leadership has been an inspiration to many. He is a deserving recipient of the CEO of the Year award, and his achievements in 2023 are a testament to his vision and dedication to the field of AI.”
Second Runners-Up: Jensen Huang and Satya Nadella
Ever since Satya Nadella took the reins at Microsoft, in February 2014, the software giant has become a frontrunner in modern IT. One of his most remarkable triumphs has been the rise of Microsoft’s cloud computing platform, Azure.
Since Nadella took over as CEO from the ineffectual Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s market capitalisation has soared nearly tenfold, from $300-billion to $2.75-trillion.
Nadella is admired for his leadership qualities and innovative ideas – no doubt inspired by his love of cricket and poetry.
That he’s a world-class CEO capable of dealing effectively with crises became patently clear in 2023 when he deftly dealt with the risk to Microsoft’s investment in OpenAI. This was after OpenAIr’s board fired its CEO, Sam Altman. What could have been a disaster for Microsoft – which had invested $13-billion in OpenAI – was quickly resolved through Nadela’s smart and agile leadership.
Jensen Huang, the CEO of chip designer Nvidia, had a banner 2023 that saw his company’s valuation soaring through $1-trillion – the first semiconductor firm to achieve this milestone – as its highly sought-after chips fuelled the AI boom.
Huang’s personal fortune expanded, too, placing him among the 30 richest people on Earth. At the time of writing, he was worth $43-billion, mostly through his exposure to Nvidia stock.
Nvidia, best known for its graphics processing units – complex chips that power the latest computer games – has seen demand for its H100 and new H200 chips, which are designed for AI workloads, skyrocket. Companies such as Microsoft, Google and many others have been snapping up all the supply they can get their hands on. — (c) 2023 NewsCentral Media
- TechCentral will unveil its South African Newsmaker of the Year on Friday