Elon Musk sues OpenAI for abandoning its principles and says taking Microsoft’s billions has ‘set the founding agreement aflame’

Elon Musk has launched a lawsuit against OpenAI and some of his fellow co-founders of the company, claiming that the firm has departed from its original principles in favour of “maximising profits” for Microsoft (first reported by the BBC). Open AI is best-known for ChatGPT and its biggest investor by far is Microsoft, which since 2019 has invested billions of dollars in a long-term partnership with the company, and last year showed its level of control by playing a leading role in Altman’s firing then re-hiring by the OpenAI board.

Musk founded OpenAI with Sam Altman and Greg Brockman (among others, including Peter Thiel) in 2015 to create artificial general intelligence (AGI), with the three agreeing on certain principles for the company that were inspired by doing the opposite of Google. OpenAI’s work would be “for the benefit of humanity”, it would be a non-profit, and it would freely open source its technology. Musk would leave OpenAI in 2018.

The new lawsuit says that Musk only agreed to co-found OpenAI because it was under these conditions, but that the firm is now focused on profits rather than those principles. The lawsuit reads:

“This case is filed 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.”

OpenAI’s structure changed in 2019 when the non-profit set up a for-profit subsidiary, which is capped but nevertheless allowed the serious money to start flowing in. Microsoft invested $1 billion the same year, and though the numbers are a little fuzzy it is now estimated to have invested over $13 billion. To state the obvious: Microsoft is doing this because it thinks there’s gold in them thar hills.

The lawsuit also takes aim at the controversy over Altman’s firing last year. The OpenAI board kicked its CEO to the curb in November last year, with the cryptic rationale that he had not been “consistently candid in his communications.” I like to imagine Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella had just taken a big sip of coffee before hearing the news, because in a highly unusual move Microsoft waded in and said it would hire Altman and basically the majority of OpenAI’s workforce (which broadly supported Altman). Facing this kind of opposition from its biggest single investor, the OpenAI board threw in the towel and a few days after being fired, Altman was back.

Musk’s lawyers describe these “stunning developments” as proof of the influence Microsoft now wields over OpenAI (a relationship that is already under scrutiny by EU and US regulators). The lawsuit goes on to say that, as a result, OpenAI’s “technology, including GPT-4, is closed-source primarily to serve the proprietary commercial interests of Microsoft […] this secrecy is primarily driven by commercial considerations, not safety.”

Complicating things is that Musk founded another AI start-up last year, xAI, though the company’s only public product so far is a chatbot called Grok that is designed rather in Musk’s own image: it’s supposed to be funny, but is just a bit cringe.

Musk’s lawsuit is for breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, unfair business practices, and is asking for many things: it wants OpenAI to be returned to its original non-profit roots, it wants OpenAI to be court-ordered to open source its AI advances, and oh yes he wants some money too. At this point you may well be wondering about the billionaire troll’s true motivations. Musk has his own competitor to OpenAI now, after all, and things aren’t looking enormously rosy at some of his other ventures.

On the other hand, Musk undeniably has a point. OpenAI was founded on certain principles, which he says his co-founders abandoned by accepting Microsoft’s investments, and GPT-4 not being open source “set the founding agreement aflame.” The lawsuit says OpenAI is now “a closed-source, de facto subsidiary of the largest technology company in the world: Microsoft. Under its new board, it is not just developing but is actually refining an AGI to maximise profits for Microsoft, rather than for the benefit of humanity.”

The suit makes much of AGI’s potential “threat to humanity” and how Microsoft instead sees it “as a source of profit and power.” Lest Google feels left out, there’s room for a few shots at it too, with Musk’s lawyers saying that in the hands of such tech companies AGI is a “particularly acute and noxious danger” to us fleshbags. It also moves on from GPT-4 to mention the much-rumoured Q*, an OpenAI project that is allegedly light years beyond ChatGPT’s capabilities, and claims that OpenAI doesn’t have the expertise to know if it is developing Skynet or not.

At the time of Altman’s firing there was plenty of scuttlebutt around the reasons why, with both Q*’s potential capabilities and the profit-making arm of OpenAI being the most persistent rumours: but thanks to how it went down, few outside the boardroom itself know the truth.

Perhaps this will bring it to light but, either way, it’s going to be a clash of the titans. Both sides in this argument can afford all the lawyers in the world, and the stakes are not just enormously high but also ideological: what, exactly, was OpenAI founded for? And is Musk actually in the right here? We’re certainly going to find out, though I’m only reminded of the immortal strapline for Alien vs. Predator: whoever wins, we lose.

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