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Elon Musk sues OpenAI over founding principles

Billionaire multi-company leader Elon Musk, a co-founder turned exited rival of OpenAI, has filed a lawsuit against his fellow co-founders, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman and Chairman Greg Brockman, over pursuing artificial general intelligence (AGI) with the sole mission of generating profits for Microsoft – which the suit claims is a breach of the company’s original founding agreement.

In the lawsuit filed at the San Francisco Superior Court, Musk alleged that when he started the research lab with Altman and Brockman they all agreed to develop AGI — a form of AI that outperform humans at most economically valuable work — for the benefit of humanity, making its technology available freely through open source licenses.

However, after Musk’s departure a few years later, the lawsuit alleges that OpenAI took a complete U-turn from its original mission and started working with Microsoft, essentially becoming its closed-source de-facto subsidiary developing and refining AGI for profits rather than the benefit of humanity.

OpenAI’s breach of founding agreement

Musk, who has been vocal about the risks of advanced AI, alleges in the lawsuit that Altman shared the same concerns as him back in 2015. In fact, the current OpenAI CEO wrote that the development of superhuman machine intelligence (SMI) is probably the greatest threat to the continued existence of humanity. 

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“There are other threats that I think are more certain to happen…but are unlikely to destroy every human in the universe in the way that SMI could,” Altman wrote, according to the lawsuit. 

Owing to these concerns and Google’s closed pursuit of AGI for its own profits, the duo and Brockman teamed up to launch OpenAI as a counterbalance that would develop advanced AI for the benefit of humanity.

The original founding agreement for the research lab aimed to build AI systems as a non-profit and open-source the technology at every step of the way to eliminate safety considerations and ensure transparency.

According to the lawsuit, OpenAI adhered to the agreement for a few years, including when it launched the GPT-3 model. The lab shared a detailed paper describing the internal specifics and the training data for GPT-3. However, things started going off track in 2020 when it partnered with Microsoft, exclusively licensing GPT-3 to the technology giant. 

In 2023, the lawsuit alleges, the founding agreement was set aflame when OpenAI released GPT-4, a model that was better at reasoning than average humans, without sharing anything about it with the public. The company has repeatedly cited safety as the reason for not detailing the internal design but Musk has alleged that this secrecy has been maintained mainly because of commercial considerations.

More importantly, the billionaire alleged that GPT-4, which has been described as an early version of AGI by Microsoft’s own researchers, has been integrated with the paid Office suite, going beyond the scope of the 2020 deal that covered GPT-3.

As this happened, the lawsuit notes, the board of OpenAI, which reserved the right to determine when AGI (a product officially outside the scope of Microsoft’s license) was achieved, fired Altman in November 2023 for not consistently being candid and losing confidence in his ability to lead the lab. However, owing to Microsoft’s significant investment in OpenAI and leverage, the CEO was reinstated and a majority of OpenAI board members were forced to resign. The new board members appointed after those events now lack the expertise to make an independent determination of whether and when OpenAI has attained AGI, the lawsuit noted.

As a result, Musk has alleged that OpenAI has essentially become a closed-source de-facto subsidiary of Microsoft, providing its early-AGI system and refining it further to maximize the profits of the technology major. He further notes that the company is also developing Q* which holds an even stronger claim to AGI.

What exactly does Musk want?

With this lawsuit, Musk wants to compel OpenAI to adhere to the original founding agreement and circle back to the mission of actually developing AGI for the benefit of humanity, rather than profits. 

While this is the first legal step from Musk against OpenAI’s purported change of tactics, it is definitely not the first time the billionaire has called out the research lab. On multiple occasions in the past, he has spoken about OpenAI being under the control of Microsoft – “a ruthless corporate monopoly” and that the company was given its name for its open, non-profit approach, which is no longer the case.

Notably, owing to these concerns and the belief that he may be the only one to bring safe, ethical AI into the world, Musk has also launched his own AI venture called xAI. The company claims it’s pursuing maximum truth-seeking AI that tries to understand the nature of the universe and has already released its own chat assistant called Grok. 

“I think this might be the best path to safety in the sense that an AI that cares about understanding the universe is unlikely to annihilate humans because we are an interesting part of the universe,” he said in an interview with Fox News in April.

xAI is still playing catchup with OpenAI but has roped in AI experts from the Altman-led organization as well as DeepMind, Google Research, Microsoft Research, Tesla and the University of Toronto. 

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