Elon Musk Sues OpenAI and Sam Altman for Breach of Contract

Elon Musk has sued OpenAI and its chief executive Sam Altman for breach of contract, alleging they have compromised the start-up’s original mission of building artificial intelligence systems for the benefit of humanity.

The lawsuit filed late on Thursday, March 29, said Altman and OpenAI’s co-founder Greg Brockman originally approached Musk to make an open source, non-profit company.

Musk, a co-founder and early backer of OpenAI, claims Altman and Brockman convinced him to help found and bankroll the startup in 2015 with promises it would be a non-profit focused on countering the competitive threat from Google. The founding agreement required OpenAI to make its technology “freely available” to the public, the lawsuit alleges.

The legal fight escalates a long-running dispute between Musk, who has founded his own AI company, known as xAI, and OpenAI, which has received a $13bn investment from Microsoft.

“OpenAI Inc has been transformed into 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 lawsuit alleges.

The suit opens with Musk’s often-stated warning that AGI poses “a grave threat to humanity”.

“Where some like Mr Musk see an existential threat in AGI, others see AGI as a source of profit and power,” said the lawsuit, adding that in the hands of for-profit companies such as Google, AGI poses a “particularly acute and noxious danger to humanity”.

Musk and other tech experts are concerned that an AGI could evade human control and take actions that endanger the planet.

The suit claims that Altman purported to share Musk’s concerns over AGI and in 2015 proposed forming a non-profit AI lab that would be “the opposite of Google”, now known as OpenAI. Together with Greg Brockman, OpenAI’s president, who is also being sued by Musk, the three men agreed to create a lab whose principles would be enshrined in a founding agreement.

The lab would be “for the benefit of humanity”, would be a not-for-profit company and would be open-source, the term for making the technology freely available.

The lawsuit claims that Musk, who stepped away from OpenAI in 2018, was a “moving force” behind the creation of OpenAI and supplied a majority of its funding in its early years. Microsoft is now the biggest investor in the company after a deal struck in 2020.

The lawsuit claims that OpenAI, Altman and Brockman “set the founding agreement aflame” in 2023 after releasing GPT-4, the powerful model that underpins OpenAI’s ChatGPT chatbot. GPT-4’s design was kept secret and such behaviour showed a radical departure from OpenAI’s original mission, the lawsuit said.

“This secrecy is primarily driven by commercial considerations, not safety,” says the lawsuit, which is claiming breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty and unfair business practices.

The lawsuit goes on to claim that the tumultuous period of events in November 2023, when Altman was sacked as OpenAI’s CEO and then reinstated, showed that Microsoft has “significant leverage” over the company. The new board introduced after Altman’s reinstatement does not have the expertise to ascertain whether the company has achieved AGI and thus whether it has produced a product outside the scope of Microsoft’s licence, the lawsuit adds.

“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,” the lawsuit claims.

The US Securities and Exchange Commission issued subpoenas to OpenAI executives in November as part of an investigation into whether Altman had misled its investors, according to people familiar with the move.

That investigation came shortly after OpenAI’s board fired Altman as chief executive only to reinstate him days later. A new board has since been instituted including former Salesforce co-chief executive Bret Taylor as chair.

There is an ongoing internal review of the former board’s allegations against Altman by independent law firm WilmerHale.

Mr. Ogonji is a highly professional and talented journalist with a solid experience in covering compelling stories, reporting facts, and engaging audiences. He is driven to uncover the truth behind today's most pressing issues and share stories that make a genuine impact.

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