Elon Musk and Yann LeCun’s social media feud highlights key differences in approach to AI research and hype

It’s time to celebrate the incredible women leading the way in AI! Nominate your inspiring leaders for VentureBeat’s Women in AI Awards today before June 18. Learn More

Over the Memorial Day weekend, while most Americans were firing up their grills and enjoying a cold one, Yann LeCun, Meta’s chief AI scientist, and Elon Musk, the enigmatic CEO of Tesla and xAI, were engaged in a no-holds-barred digital dustup on X.com (formerly Twitter). This clash of the AI titans exposed some of the key fault lines in the fast-moving, hype-fueled field of artificial intelligence.

The online feud ignited on Sunday, May 26th when LeCun threw shade at Musk, who was promoting job openings at his new AI startup xAI. LeCun’s tweet was a masterclass in snark: “Join xAI if you can stand a boss who: claims that what you are working on will be solved next year (no pressure), claims that what you are working on will kill everyone and must be stopped or paused (yay, vacation for 6 months!), claims to want a ‘maximally rigorous pursuit of the truth’ but spews crazy-ass conspiracy theories on his own social platform.”

Musk, never one to back down from a fight, came out swinging. “What ‘science’ have you done in the past 5 years?” he posted, questioning LeCun’s recent contributions to the field. LeCun wasn’t about to let that one go: “Over 80 technical papers published since January 2022. What about you?”

The godfather of convolutional neural networks vs. The self-proclaimed savior of humanity

LeCun, 63, is a bonafide AI legend, one of the pioneers of deep learning, the groundbreaking technique that now powers everything from chatbots to self-driving cars. Back in 1989, as a researcher at Bell Labs, he co-authored a paper that introduced convolutional neural networks, a fundamental architecture of deep learning. “Every single driving assistance system today uses ConvNets,” LeCun posted, and he’s not wrong.

VB Transform 2024 Registration is Open

Join enterprise leaders in San Francisco from July 9 to 11 for our flagship AI event. Connect with peers, explore the opportunities and challenges of Generative AI, and learn how to integrate AI applications into your industry. Register Now

Musk, 52, has had a more tumultuous relationship with the AI research community, despite his companies’ heavy reliance on the technology. His startup xAI has the lofty goal of building artificial general intelligence, or human-level AI—an ambition that many experts consider to be jumping the gun. Meanwhile, Tesla’s self-driving technology, which Musk has repeatedly hyped as being on the cusp of full autonomy, relies heavily on deep learning systems that were initially developed in academic labs like LeCun’s.

The Importance of Sharing Scientific Knowledge in the Age of Corporate Secrecy

“Technological marvels don’t just pop out of the vacuum,” LeCun posted. “They are built on years (sometimes decades) of scientific research that makes them possible. Research ideas and results are shared through technical papers. Without this sharing of scientific information, technological progress would slow to a crawl.”

Musk, in true Muskian fashion, dismissed the importance of scientific publishing, claiming that Tesla doesn’t use convolutional neural networks much anymore in its self-driving stack. LeCun wasn’t buying it: “Curious to know how you could possibly do real-time camera image understanding in [Full Self-Driving] without ConvNets, TBH.”

In an era where corporate secrecy around AI development is becoming the norm, exemplified by the tight-lipped labs of OpenAI and Google DeepMind, many experts still consider timely and transparent scientific publication to be essential to the long-term health of the field. Clem Delangue, co-founder of AI startup Hugging Face, summed it up nicely: “The scientists who publish their groundbreaking research openly are the cornerstone of technological progress & massively contribute to making the world a better place!”

The future of AI: A tale of two visions

Both Meta and xAI have had eventful years in their quest for AI supremacy. Meta recently released a large language model called LLaMA 3 and is integrating similar technologies into its social apps like Instagram and WhatsApp, all while watching its market value slip away. Meanwhile, xAI announced a whopping $6 billion fundraise as Musk promises to build “artificial general intelligence,” though the details of his master plan remain fuzzy at best.

LeCun and Musk, two of the most influential figures in AI, clearly have divergent visions for the future of this transformative technology. But if this holiday weekend is any indication, the debates that will shape that future are increasingly playing out in the open, one tweet at a time. And we, for one, are here for it. Pass the popcorn.