Elon Musk sues OpenAI, accuses ChatGPT maker of abandoning its original mission

Elon Musk sues OpenAI, accuses ChatGPT maker of abandoning its original mission


A previous version of this article contained a misspelling of Jason Kwon’s last name. The article has been corrected.

Elon Musk is suing OpenAI, the artificial intelligence powerhouse he helped found and now competes with, alleging it has strayed from its original nonprofit mission of researching AI for the benefit of humanity.

In a lawsuit filed Thursday in San Francisco Superior Court against OpenAI, CEO Sam Altman and co-founder Greg Brockman, Musk asked the court to block OpenAI from using its products, such as the popular large-language model ChatGPT, for “financial benefit,” including in its multibillion-dollar partnership with Microsoft. Musk wants a court order requiring OpenAI to follow its “long-standing practice of making AI research and technology developed at OpenAI available to the public” rather than keeping it proprietary.

Over the last year, Musk has publicly criticized Altman and the company, as OpenAI became the most talked-about tech start-up in Silicon Valley. Last March, Musk founded a new AI company, called X.AI, which is building its own AI model, potentially putting it in competition with OpenAI. Musk has also complained that OpenAI and its investor, Microsoft, have scraped his social media company X for data to train their AI models.

OpenAI spokespeople declined to comment. But in an internal memo to staff obtained by The Washington Post, OpenAI Chief Strategy Officer Jason Kwon shot back at the lawsuit.

“We categorically disagree and, while we have a long way to go, have already made much more mission progress than many — including Elon — thought possible,” Kwon said in the memo. “We believe the claims in this suit may stem from Elon’s regrets about not being involved with the company today.”

Musk is no stranger to court battles, having faced many himself. In the past, he has said that he will fight legal battles even if they are unlikely to be successful if he believes they are righteous.

Still, the lawsuit adds to the legal challenges that OpenAI is facing. The company’s success in building more capable AI tools has catapulted it to the top of the tech industry, with Big Tech AI leader Google scrambling to keep up. But OpenAI is facing numerous other lawsuits from authors and news organizations who claim the company used their work to train its AI without permission or payment.

Regulators in the United States and Europe are also looking into the company’s relationship with its largest investor, Microsoft, and the Securities and Exchange Commission is conducting an inquiry into whether the company’s investors were misled, according to people familiar with the probe.

In the memo to employees, Kwon said OpenAI complies with all laws and regulator requests for information. “We clearly and frequently communicate with our investors — who seem very happy with us,” he said.

Musk has long aired his anxieties about AI, saying in 2014 that inventing super-intelligent computers would be like “summoning the demon.” A year later, he helped start OpenAI alongside Altman and Brockman, with the ostensible goal of researching AI for the public’s benefit and keeping what Musk considered a potentially dangerous technology out of the hands of a corporate giant, such as Google or Microsoft, according to Musk’s lawsuit.

Musk is known to aggressively go after his enemies, and the lawsuit could lead to public disclosure of internal communications and details about OpenAI’s founding and business relationships through court-ordered discovery.

Last year, Musk said on X that he had donated $100 million to help found the company, but in a later interview on CNBC he said the number was actually “on the order of $50 million.” The lawsuit states that Musk contributed $44 million to OpenAI between 2016 and 2020, as well as helping on research decisions and recruiting AI researchers such as Ilya Sutskever, a well-known AI scientist.

In 2018, Musk stepped down as co-chair of the nonprofit, although he continued to make contributions until around the time OpenAI began to shift its corporate structure, which included a for-profit subsidiary, according to the lawsuit.

Over the last year, OpenAI has rapidly commercialized its new tools, selling access to its underlying AI tech directly to other companies and building out a consumer business that includes a $20 per month subscription to a premium version of ChatGPT. Hiring top AI researchers and running the servers necessary to train new AI models is immensely expensive and the company is still dependent on outside funding, especially from Microsoft.

The company has triggered a broader debate inside the AI community about whether companies should charge ahead and release products to the public or if they should be more careful about making sure the tools do not exhibit biases or allow people to make malicious software before selling them.

Musk has hired a team of AI experts to lead research at his own AI company, which he has said will work with Tesla, Musk’s car company that already has a large AI team and owns the computer chips necessary to train AI models. Musk is also working on a humanoid robot called Optimus.

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