Elon Musk Sues OpenAI, Sam Altman for Making Money Over Benefitting Humanity

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Elon Musk and Sam Altman in 2015. - Credit: Michael Kovac/Getty Images
Elon Musk and Sam Altman in 2015. - Credit: Michael Kovac/Getty Images

Elon Musk accused Sam Altman and OpenAI of pursuing profit over bettering humanity in a new breach of contract lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court yesterday, Feb. 29.

Musk helped Altman found OpenAI as a non-profit in 2015 (Musk left the board of directors in 2018 and no longer has a stake). Central to the lawsuit is OpenAI’s “founding agreement,” which, per the lawsuit, stated the lab would build artificial general intelligence (AGI) “for the benefit of humanity,” not to “maximize shareholder profits,” and that the technology would be “open-source” and not kept “secret for propriety commercial reasons.”

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Musk’s new lawsuit alleges that OpenAI has reversed course on this agreement, particularly through its $13 billion partnership with Microsoft. It further calls out the secrecy shrouding the tech behind OpenAI’s flagship Chat GPT-4 language model and major changes to the company’s board following Altman’s tumultuous hiring and re-firing last year.

“These events of 2023 constitute flagrant breaches of the Founding Agreement, which Defendants have essentially turned on its head,” the suit reads. “To this day, OpenAI, Inc.’s website continues profess that its charter is to ensure that AGI ‘benefits all of humanity.’ In reality, however, OpenAI, Inc. has been transformed into a closed-source de facto subsidiary of the largest technology company in the world: Microsoft.”

Along with Altman and OpenAI, the suit names another co-founder, Greg Brockman, as a defendant, as well as numerous OpenAI subsidiaries. A rep for OpenAI did not immediately return Rolling Stone’s request for comment.

Microsoft, though not named as a defendant in the suit, is mentioned numerous times in the lawsuit. It states, at one point, that the company “stands to make a fortune selling GPT-4 to the public, which would not be possible if OpenAI — as it is required to do — makes the technology freely available to the public.”

As for Altman’s firing and re-hiring last year, the lawsuit notes the various news reports that suggested the old OpenAI board ousted Altman over concerns about the new profit-centric focus of the company and the speed at which it was developing its new technologies. (While OpenAI started as a nonprofit, it launched a for-profit wing in 2019.) Much of that board was booted once Altman was brought back, and the lawsuit suggests he “hand-picked” a new board with little “technical expertise or any substantial background in AI governance, which the previous board had by design.”

Instead, the lawsuit states, the new board included members “with more experience in profit-centric enterprises or politics than in AI ethics and governance. They were also reportedly ‘big fans of Altman.’

Musk’s lawsuit reportedly aims to make OpenAI pay back its profits, though the lawsuit does seem to want any damages proven at trial to go towards a “non-profit or charity” (while also covering attorneys’ fees, of course). Beyond the money, though, the lawsuit states Musk brought it to “compel OpenAI to adhere to the Founding Agreement and return to its mission to develop AGI for the benefit of humanity, not to personally benefit the individual Defendants and the largest technology company in the world.”

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