Musk Sues OpenAI and Sam Altman

Elon Musk is suing OpenAI and its chief executive, Sam Altman, claiming they are breaching a contract by putting profits and commercial interests in developing artificial intelligence ahead of the public good. The multibillion-dollar partnership that OpenAI developed with Microsoft represented an abandonment of a founding pledge to carefully develop AI and make the technology publicly available, Musk explained

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

Musk helped found OpenAI in 2015 as a response to AI work done by Google. Musk believed Google dismissed the risk AI presented to humanity. He left OpenAI’s board in 2018. The company went on to create ChatGPT, a chatbot that can produce text and respond to queries in humanlike prose. 

“The courts of California must decide what OpenAI must do after straying from its original mission,” said Gary Marcus, an AI entrepreneur and an emeritus professor of psychology and neural science at New York University. “The court of public opinion must decide what it thinks of Musk, who has a fair point about OpenAI but has his own commercial AI interests and choices.”

OpenAI declined to comment on the lawsuit. In a message sent to OpenAI employees, Altman said that he was confused by Mr. Musk’s argument that building AI for the benefit of humanity was at odds with building a business. 

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 outletswriters, and computer programmers for scraping copyrighted material to train its chatbot. And the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating Mr. Altman and OpenAI.

Musk is asking that OpenAI open its technology to others and that Mr. Altman and others pay back the money he gave to the organization. Greg Brockman, the president of OpenAI, is also named as a defendant. 

In 2019, Mr. 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 for building and deploying its AI. Microsoft has invested an additional $12 billion in the startup. It is the only company outside of OpenAI with a license to use the raw technology behind GPT-4, its most powerful AI technology.

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 a for-profit company. 

Musk criticized OpenAI for becoming a for-profit company; however, his plan in 2017 was to wrest control of the AI lab from Altman and other founders and transform it into a commercial operation that would work alongside his other companies, including the electric carmaker Tesla, and make use of their increasingly powerful supercomputers.  Some said he left the OpenAI board when his attempt to take control failed.

Musk and Altman first met during a tour of SpaceX, Mr. Musk’s rocket company, and later bonded over their shared concerns about the threat that AI could pose to humanity.

The question is now, does Musk have standing to sue? 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, Mr. Musk probably does not have the standing to bring it, because nonprofit law limits challenges of this type to those made by a nonprofit’s dues-paying members, its own directors or state regulators in Delaware, where OpenAI is registered.

“If he were a member of the board of directors, I would say, ‘Ooh, strong case.’ If this was filed by the Delaware secretary of state, I would say, ‘Ooh they’re in trouble,’” Mr. Quinn said. “But he doesn’t have standing. He doesn’t have a case.”

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