Elon Musk Sues OpenAI and Sam Altman for Violating the Company’s Principles

Elon Musk sued OpenAI and its chief executive, Sam Altman, accusing them of breaching a contract by prioritizing profit and commercial interests in developing artificial intelligence over the public good.

Mr. Musk, who helped create OpenAI with Mr. Altman and others in 2015, said the company’s multibillion-dollar partnership with Microsoft represented an abandonment of its founding pledge to carefully develop A.I. and make the technology publicly available.

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

The lawsuit is the latest chapter in a fight between the former business partners that has been simmering for years. After Mr. Musk left OpenAI’s board in 2018, the company went on to become a leader in the field of generative A.I. and created ChatGPT, a chatbot that can produce text and respond to queries in humanlike prose. Mr. Musk, who has his own A.I. company, called xAI, said OpenAI was not focused enough on the technology’s risks.

Mr. Musk’s lawsuit said he became involved with OpenAI because it was created as a nonprofit to develop artificial intelligence for the “benefit of humanity.” A key component of that, the lawsuit said, was to make its 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 Mr. Altman of being in breach of contract and violating fiduciary duty, as well as unfair business practices. Mr. Musk is asking that OpenAI be required to make its technology open source and that Mr. Altman pay back the money that Mr. Musk says was earned as a result of its behavior. Greg Brockman, the president of OpenAI, is also named as a defendant.

OpenAI and Mr. Musk did not respond to requests for comment.

The lawsuit is a fresh challenge for Mr. Altman, who was briefly ousted as OpenAI’s chief executive last year before regaining control of the company. The company’s relationship with Microsoft is also facing scrutiny from regulators in the United States, European Union and Britain.

The New York Times sued OpenAI and Microsoft in December, claiming copyright infringement of news content that was used to train the chatbots.

The falling out between Mr. Musk and Mr. Altman has been a subject of intrigue in Silicon Valley.

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 new A.I. technology and Mr. Musk, who wanted it to remain a research lab.

“Either go do something on your own or continue with OpenAI as a nonprofit,” Mr. Musk said at one point, according to the complaint. “I will no longer fund OpenAI until you have made a firm commitment to stay, or I’m just being a fool who is essentially providing free funding to a startup. Discussions are over.”

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

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

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