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Elon Musk sues OpenAI and Sam Altman for allegedly ditching non-profit mission

OpenAI co-founder Elon Musk has sued the company, his fellow co-founders, associated businesses and unidentified others. He claims that, by chasing profits, they’re violating OpenAI’s status as a non-profit and its foundational contractual agreements to develop AI “for the benefit of humanity.”

The suit alleges that OpenAI has become a “closed-source de facto subsidiary” of Microsoft, which has invested $13 billion and holds a 49 percent stake. Microsoft uses OpenAI tech to power generative AI tools such as Copilot.

According to the filing, under OpenAI’s current board, it is allegedly developing and refining an artificial general intelligence (AGI) “to maximize profits for Microsoft, rather than for the benefit of humanity. This was a stark betrayal of the Founding Agreement.”

The suit defines AGI as “a machine having intelligence for a wide variety of tasks like a human.” Musk argues in the suit that GPT-4, which is purportedly “better at reasoning than average humans,” is tantamount to AGI and is “a de facto Microsoft proprietary algorithm.”

Musk has long expressed concerns over AGI. He claims the theoretical tech posits “a grave threat to humanity,” particularly “in the hands of a closed, for-profit company like Google.”

According to the filing, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman and fellow co-founder Greg Brockman persuaded Musk to help them start the non-profit and to fund its early operations in a bid to counter Google’s advancements in the AGI space with DeepMind. He noted that their initial agreement called for OpenAI’s tech to be “freely available” to the public. Musk claims to have donated $44 million to the non-profit between 2016 and 2020 (he stepped down as an OpenAI board member in 2018). As TechCrunch reports, Musk previously said he was offered a stake in OpenAI’s for-profit subsidiary, but rejected it due to “a principled stand.”

Muskl, of course, has some skin in the game. Since the public debut of OpenAI’s ChatGPT in November 2022, there’s been a battle between tech giants to offer the best generative AI tools. Musk joined that rat race when his AI company, xAI, rolled out ChatGPT rival Grok to Premium+ subscribers on his X social network last year.

When Altman swiftly returned to power after OpenAI’s board shockingly fired him in November, he’s said to have appointed a new group of directors that is less technically minded and more business-focused. Microsoft was appointed as a non-voting observer. “The new board consisted of members with more experience in profit-centric enterprises or politics than in AI ethics and governance,” the lawsuit alleges.

The suit accuses the defendants of breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty and unfair business practices. Musk is seeking a jury trial and a ruling that forces OpenAI to stick to its original non-profit mission. He also wants it to be banned from monetizing tech it developed as a non-profit for the benefit of OpenAI leadership as well as Microsoft and other partners.

Competition regulators in the US, the UK and European Union are said to be examining OpenAI’s partnership with Microsoft. It was reported this week that the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating whether OpenAI misled investors. Several news organizations have sued OpenAI and Microsoft as well, alleging that ChatGPT repurposes their work “verbatim or nearly verbatim” without attribution, infringing upon their copyright in the process.

In a couple of internal memos seen by Bloomberg, OpenAI said it “categorically disagrees” with the lawsuit Musk has filed. Chief Strategy Officer Jason Kwon denied that OpenAI has become a “de facto subsidiary” of Microsoft and said that Musk’s claims “may stem from [his] regrets about not being involved with the company today.” Altman also said in another memo that Musk is his hero and that he misses the person he knew who competed with others by building better technology.

Update, March 02, 2023, 1:47AM ET: This story has been updated to include OpenAI’s internal memos about the lawsuit.

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