Elon Musk sues OpenAI and Sam Altman for violating company principles

Elon Musk sues OpenAI and Sam Altman for violating company principles

OpenAI, the influential artificial intelligence company that ousted and then reinstated its high-profile CEO three months ago, is facing new drama: a lawsuit from Elon Musk, one of the world’s richest men and co-founder of the AI. .

Musk sued OpenAI and its CEO, Sam Altman, accusing them of breaching a contract by putting profits and commercial interests in developing artificial intelligence ahead of the public good. A multibillion-dollar partnership that OpenAI developed with Microsoft, Musk said, represented an abandonment of a founding promise to carefully develop AI and make the technology publicly available.

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

The 35-page lawsuit is the latest chapter in a fight between former business partners that has been simmering for years, and centers on unresolved questions in the AI ​​community: Will artificial intelligence improve the world or destroy it? Controlled or released?

Musk, Tesla’s CEO, and Altman, like everyone else in the world, have helped frame that debate. Musk helped found OpenAI in 2015 as a response to the AI ​​work Google was doing at the time. Musk believed that Google and its co-founder, Larry Page, were dismissive of the risks that AI presented to humanity.

Musk left the OpenAI board during a power struggle in 2018. The company became a leader in the field of generative AI and created ChatGPT, a chatbot that can produce text and answer queries in human prose. Musk, who founded his own artificial intelligence company last year called xAI, said OpenAI did not focus enough on the risks of the technology.

The lawsuit is also the latest twist for a company embroiled in controversy. In November, OpenAI’s board of directors ousted Altman and said it no longer trusted him to lead the company. He was reinstated just five days later, after an employee revolt threatened the future of the company.

Silicon Valley insiders believe that generative AI, the technology behind ChatGPT, is a once-in-a-generation technology that could transform the tech industry as profoundly as web browsers did more than 30 years ago.

“California courts must decide what OpenAI should do after deviating from its original mission,” said Gary Marcus, an AI entrepreneur and professor emeritus of psychology and neural sciences at New York University. “The court of public opinion must decide what you think of Musk, who is right about OpenAI but has his own interests and business options when it comes to AI.”

OpenAI declined to comment on the lawsuit. In a message sent to OpenAI employees on Friday afternoon and seen by The New York Times, Altman said he was confused by Musk’s argument that building AI for the benefit of humanity was at odds with building a business.

Jason Kwon, OpenAI’s chief strategy officer, told OpenAI employees in another message seen by The Times that company leaders “categorically disagree” with the lawsuit. Musk’s claims “do not reflect the reality of our work or mission,” he wrote.

The lawsuit adds to a series of problems that are piling up for OpenAI. The company’s relationship with Microsoft also faces scrutiny from regulators in the United States, the European Union and Britain. He has been sued by The New York Times, several digital media outlets, writers and computer programmers for extracting copyrighted material to train his chatbot. And the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating Mr. Altman and OpenAI.

Musk’s lawsuit said he became involved with OpenAI because it was created as a nonprofit organization to develop artificial intelligence for the “benefit of humanity.” A key component of this, according to the lawsuit, was making his 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 Altman of breach of contract and fiduciary duty, as well as unfair business practices. Musk is calling for OpenAI to be required to open its technology to others and for Altman and others to return the money Musk gave to the organization. Greg Brockman, president of OpenAI, is also accused.

Musk’s argument hinges on the close partnership between OpenAI and Microsoft. In 2019, Altman negotiated a deal in which Microsoft agreed to invest $1 billion in OpenAI. The startup said it would use Microsoft’s cloud computing services exclusively to build and deploy its AI. Microsoft has since invested an additional $12 billion in the startup and is the only company outside of OpenAI with a license to use the raw technology behind GPT-4, the company’s most powerful AI technology.

Other companies like Google, Meta, and French startup Mistral freely share some of their latest technologies with other companies and researchers.

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

Although Musk has repeatedly criticized OpenAI for becoming a for-profit company, in 2017 he hatched a plan to wrest control of the AI ​​lab from Altman and its other founders and transform it into a commercial operation that would run alongside its other founders. companies, including electric car maker Tesla, and make use of its increasingly powerful supercomputers, people familiar with his plan have said. When his attempt to take control failed, he left OpenAI’s board of directors, the people said.

Speaking at the New York Times DealBook Summit last year, Musk said he wanted to know more about the chaos that unfolded at OpenAI last year, including why co-founder Ilya Sutskever joined other board members in firing the Mr. Altman in November. He said he was concerned that OpenAI had discovered some dangerous element of AI, an issue his legal team could investigate as part of the lawsuit.

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

Musk did not respond to requests for comment.

The dispute between Musk and Altman has long been a topic of intrigue in Silicon Valley. The men met for the first time. during a SpaceX tourMusk’s rocket company, and later bonded over their shared concerns about the threat AI 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 the new AI technology and Musk, who wanted to remain a research laboratory.

“Either do something on your own or continue OpenAI as a nonprofit,” Musk said at one point, according to the complaint. “I will no longer fund OpenAI until you have firmly committed to staying, or I am just being a fool who is basically providing free funding to a startup. “The discussions are over.”

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

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

Brian Quinn, a law professor at Boston College, said Musk’s complaint made a compelling case that OpenAI had abandoned its roots. But, he said, Musk probably doesn’t have the standing to bring it, because nonprofit law limits such challenges to those made by a nonprofit’s dues-paying members, its own directors or state regulators. in Delaware, where OpenAI is registered. .

“If I were a board member, I’d say, ‘Oh, strong case.’ If this was presented by the Secretary of State of Delaware, he would say, ‘Oh, they’re in trouble,’” Quinn said. “But he has no prestige. He has no case.”

David A. Fahrenthold contributed reports.

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John C. Johnson

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