Elon Musk Sues OpenAI and Sam Altman for Violating the Company’s Principles

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Elon Musk sued OpenAI and its chief executive, Sam Altman, accusing them of breaching a contract by putting profits and commercial interests in developing artificial intelligence ahead of the public good.

Mr. Musk, who helped create OpenAI with Mr. Altman and others in 2015, said the company’s multibillion-dollar partnership with Microsoft represented an abandonment of its founding pledge to carefully develop A.I. and make the technology publicly available.

“OpenAI has been transformed into a closed-source de facto subsidiary of the largest technology company, Microsoft,” said the lawsuit, which was filed Thursday in Superior Court in San Francisco.

The lawsuit is the latest chapter in a fight between the former business partners that has been simmering for years. After Mr. Musk left OpenAI’s board in 2018, the company went on to become a leader in the field of generative A.I. and created ChatGPT, a chatbot that can produce text and respond to queries in humanlike prose. Mr. Musk, who has his own A.I. company, called xAI, said OpenAI was not focused enough on the technology’s risks.

Silicon Valley insiders believe that generative A.I., the technology behind ChatGPT, is a once in a generation technology that could transform the tech industry as thoroughly as web browsers did more than 30 years ago. But others, most notably Mr. Musk, have said that the technology can also be dangerous — perhaps even destroy humanity.

The lawsuit adds to an array of problems piling up for OpenAI. The company’s relationship with Microsoft is also facing scrutiny from regulators in the United States, European Union and Britain. It has been sued by The New York Times, several digital outlets, writers and computer programmers for scraping copyrighted material to train its chatbot. And the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating Mr. Altman and OpenAI after the company’s board removed him in November, before reinstating him days later.

Mr. Musk’s lawsuit said he became involved with OpenAI because it was created as a nonprofit to develop artificial intelligence for the “benefit of humanity.” A key component of that, the lawsuit said, was to make its technology open source, meaning it would share the underlying software code with the world. Instead, the company created a for-profit business unit and restricted access to its technology.

The lawsuit, which seeks a jury trial, accused OpenAI and Mr. Altman of being in breach of contract and violating fiduciary duty, as well as unfair business practices. Mr. Musk is asking that OpenAI be required to open up its technology to others and that Mr. Altman and others pay back Mr. Musk the money that Mr. Musk gave to the organization. Greg Brockman, the president of OpenAI, is also named as a defendant.

OpenAI declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The suit could expose OpenAI to a lengthy and invasive legal review that reveals more about Mr. Altman’s dismissal and OpenAI’s pivot from being a nonprofit organization to for-profit company. That change, which was engineered by Mr. Altman in late 2018 and early 2019, has been the source of backbiting at OpenAI for years and contributed to the board’s decision to fire him as chief executive.

Though Mr. Musk has repeatedly criticized OpenAI for becoming a for-profit company, he hatched a plan in 2017 to wrest control of the A.I. lab from Mr. Altman and its other founders and transform into a commercial operation that would work alongside his other companies, including the electric carmaker Tesla, and make use of their increasingly powerful supercomputers, people familiar with his plan have said. When his attempt to take control failed, he left the OpenAI board, the people said.

Speaking at The New York Times’s DealBook Summit last year, Mr. Musk said that he wanted to know more about the chaos that unfolded at OpenAI last year, including why Ilya Sutskever, a co-founder, joined with other board members to fire Mr. Altman in November. He said that he was concerned that OpenAI had discovered some dangerous element of A.I., which is a question that his legal team could investigate during the lawsuit.

“I have mixed feelings about Sam,” Mr. Musk said at the DealBook conference. Making a reference to a powerful ring in “The Lord of the Rings,” he added, “The ring of power can corrupt, and he has the ring of power.”

Mr. Musk did not respond to requests for comment.

The falling out between Mr. Musk and Mr. Altman has long been a subject of intrigue in Silicon Valley. The men first met during a tour of SpaceX, Mr. Musk’s rocket company, and later bonded over their shared concerns about the threat that A.I. could pose to humanity.

According to the lawsuit, OpenAI’s nonprofit status was a major source of friction, as tensions grew between company executives interested in trying to make money from new A.I. technology and Mr. Musk, who wanted it to remain a research lab.

“Either go do something on your own or continue with OpenAI as a nonprofit,” Mr. Musk said at one point, according to the complaint. “I will no longer fund OpenAI until you have made a firm commitment to stay, or I’m just being a fool who is essentially providing free funding to a startup. Discussions are over.”

The lawsuit tries to show Mr. Musk as an indispensable figure in OpenAI’s development. From 2016 to 2020, Mr. Musk contributed more than $44 million to OpenAI, according to the lawsuit. He also leased the company’s initial office space in San Francisco and paid the monthly expenses. He was personally involved in recruiting Mr. Sutskever, a top research scientist at Google, to be OpenAI’s chief scientist, according to the complaint.

“Without Mr. Musk’s involvement and substantial supporting efforts and resources,” the suit says, “it is highly likely that OpenAI Inc. would never have gotten off the ground.”



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