Elon Musk sues ChatGPT maker OpenAI and CEO Sam Altman for abandoning non-profit mission

Company is accused of betraying its founding principles, with Microsoft named as the biggest beneficiary of this about-turn

Elon Musk was an early backer of OpenAI. Reuters
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Elon Musk has sued OpenAI and its chief executive Sam Altman over the ChatGPT maker's "stark betrayal" of its founding principles of being a non-profit organisation that would ensure artificial intelligence would be for the greater good of the world.

The lawsuit, filed in the Superior Court of California, alleges that OpenAI has pursued profit, with Microsoft, the world's most valuable company and the biggest backer of OpenAI, benefiting the most.

OpenAI took off last year, and its rise caused the shift, the case alleges. Mr Musk was an early backer and a co-founder of OpenAI, but stepped down in 2018. Microsoft was reported to have invested $10 billion in California-based OpenAI last year.

"These events of 2023 constitute flagrant breaches of the founding agreement, which defendants have essentially turned on its head. To this day, OpenAI, Inc’s website continues to profess that its charter is to ensure that AGI [artificial general intelligence] 'benefits all of humanity'," the lawsuit said.

"In reality, however, OpenAI, Inc has been transformed into a closed-source de facto subsidiary of the largest technology company in the world: Microsoft. Under its new board, it is not just developing but is actually refining an AGI to maximise profits for Microsoft, rather than for the benefit of humanity."

Mr Musk, the world's wealthiest person, further targeted Mr Altman, saying that when the two met in 2015, he "may have found someone who understood his concerns about AI and his desire to keep the first AGI out of the hands of a private company like Google".

OpenAI, Mr Altman and its co-founder Greg Brockman, also a defendant in the lawsuit, have yet to respond to the allegations.

OpenAI's meteoric rise stemmed from its sensational ChatGPT generative AI platform, sparking a race between companies and investors to cash in on what is considered the next technological revolution.

However, while AI has already long been used, its evolving iterations have made it become even more powerful, stoking concerns ranging from misinformation, misuse and bias to further enhancing the notion that AI will take jobs away from human beings.

Mr Musk also noted that Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella "boasted" about the apparent benefits of Microsoft's support of OpenAI, in a boardroom saga that engulfed OpenAI in November last year.

Mr Altman was ousted by OpenAI's board on November 17, who said he was not consistently candid in his communications, only to be reinstated a few days later after a dramatic chain of events that included two interim chief executives.

In between, Mr Nadella had said that Mr Altman would be joining Microsoft to lead a new AI development unit at the Windows operating system maker.

"Indeed, as the November 2023 drama was unfolding, Microsoft’s CEO boasted that it would not matter '[i]f OpenAI disappeared tomorrow'," the lawsuit said.

"He explained that '[w]e have all the IP rights and all the capability.' 'We have the people, we have the compute, we have the data, we have everything.' 'We are below them, above them, around them'," it said.

Mr Musk's lawsuit demands to "compel OpenAI to adhere" to its original founding agreement, "not to personally benefit the individual defendants and the largest technology company in the world".

The filing also highlighted Mr Musk's moves to help advocate for the safety of AI, including voicing his concerns on Google's acquisition of DeepMind in 2014 and approaching US president Barack Obama to discuss his push for regulation.

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It also said Mr Musk went around "hosting his own series of dinner discussions on ways to counter Google and promote AI safety".

Google, which is facing its own generative AI debacle after its Gemini platform flopped last week during its handling of racial issues, has not reacted to the lawsuit.

Mr Musk, owner of the microblogging site X, formerly Twitter, and chief executive of electric vehicle maker Tesla, formed his own AI company last year, xAI, to challenge OpenAI and whose mission statement is “to understand reality”.

Updated: March 05, 2024, 10:23 AM