Washington Elon Musk’s power is palpable, especially at the center of American politics. Dozens of police officers are securing a side entrance in front of the Russell Building, an office complex for the US Congress. Musk is about to leave the building; he spent a good two hours inside discussing AI regulation with US senators. “Two minute warning!” croaks from a radio, which means that Musk is approaching. You usually hear a countdown like this from the US President’s entourage. And with Elon Musk.
The top round took place behind closed doors, but Musk knew how to get his message out there. As a celebrity CEO, Musk did not shy away from the role of AI explainer. He also liked to give lectures outside the conference hall on a topic that would still be abstract for most people, even though artificial intelligence is penetrating all areas of life.
Gates, Zuckerberg, Pichai: Everyone is running away
When Musk strolls out of the swinging doors of the Russell Building, he first makes it clear that he is in a hurry: he has an appointment with the aviation authority. But then he lingers, “just for a second,” which makes his security guards nervous.
Musk enjoys having all eyes and cameras on him, and unlike other, often more secretive Silicon Valley legends, the circus doesn’t seem to bother him.
Bill Gates hurries past the crowd of reporters with his head bowed and disappears into a black Lincoln SUV. Same thing with Mark Zuckerberg: hurried walk, no eye contact, into the limo. Pichai is also gone faster than the photographers can press the shutter button.
Completely different Musk. “We have to act proactively,” he implores Congress. He, who otherwise insists on streamlining the state and reducing regulation, is pushing for a US federal agency to monitor AI. Asked whether AI will destroy humanity, Musk pauses and responds: “The probability of AI killing us all is greater than zero. I think it is low. But if there is even a certain chance of this happening, we should take it into account.” The development of AI, the billionaire continued, is “potentially harmful to everyone everywhere.”
After a few minutes, Musk stops and says he really has to go now. Then he stops again in front of his Tesla to make another statement. “He’s still speaking!” – “He’s still speaking!” – says a police officer.
AI companies create facts
Washington is a perfect stage for Musk. The US Congress is considered chronically slow-moving when it comes to big tech regulation, but President Joe Biden considers artificial intelligence to be the “greatest revolutionary factor in human history” and has made AI regulation a priority. So far, it has remained voluntary agreements, which Nvidia and Salesforce have joined, among others, in order to reduce the risks of artificial intelligence. There are currently no specific legal requirements for AI in the USA, where the largest tech companies are based.
The AI round on Capitol Hill, the first of its kind, was intended to explore the interests and lines of conflict between lawmakers and the private sector. In the Kennedy Caucus Room, a huge meeting room, the 22 guests sat in a U-shape – on one side of the room was Musk, on the other side was Zuckerberg, whose Threads platform is considered a direct competitor to X.
They sat together for seven hours and the group was “productive,” as many senators confirmed. And yet the meeting sent a signal that US politicians are struggling to find a regulatory framework while the private sector is creating facts in AI development. And Musk, as it became clear once again on Wednesday, is now also presenting himself as the “King of the Hill” when it comes to AI.
He doesn’t lack expertise. Musk was one of the early investors in AI research company DeepMind and helped found OpenAI, but left the company after a power struggle with Altman. He recently founded a new company, xAI, with the goal of understanding “the true nature of the universe.”
No other prominent summit guest is involved in so many industries at once: electromobility, satellite technology, space travel, social media. His wealth, his global connections and his companies SpaceX, Tesla and sits.
This is how US politics became dependent on Musk
For years, the US military has used SpaceX rockets and satellite communications services for drones, ships and aircraft. NASA sends American astronauts into space with Musk’s space capsules. Musk controls over 3,000 satellites, far more than any nation. Its Starlink satellite systems are helpful to the US government in the Ukraine war. Tesla puts more electric cars on US roads than any other manufacturer – which is in the interest of Biden, who is pushing for a transport transition.
At the same time, Musk seems like an unpredictable partner; he has criticized Joe Biden’s China and Russia policies in the past and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Musk is also involved in the current presidential election campaign and supports several Republican presidential candidates, including Ron DeDantis and Vivek Ramaswamy.
Since the Twitter takeover, the US government has become increasingly concerned that the billionaire is becoming too powerful. New allegations are fueling fears: According to the recently published Musk biography by author Walter Isaacson, Musk is said to have actively intervened in the course of the war in Ukraine by denying the Ukrainian army access to Starlink satellites. A private entrepreneur deciding on war and peace – that would be breaking a taboo in US foreign policy.
Musk was apparently not directly confronted with the allegations on Wednesday. During a break, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren simply demanded that Congress clarify what exactly enabled Musk to have “this kind of power” in Ukraine. And the US military must review its contracts with the parent company SpaceX.
But calls like these ignore reality, the cooperation between Musk and the US government is becoming more solid: The Pentagon only announced in June that it wanted to buy new Starlink satellite terminals for Ukraine.
More: Pentagon AI chief in an interview: “Good data is more important than artificial intelligence”