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Elon Musk sues OpenAI for choosing profits over 'the benefit of humanity'

From left, Elon Musk, Sam Altman and Andrew Ross Sorkin, <em>New York Times</em> financial columnist, speak  during the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on Oct. 6, 2015, in San Francisco.
Mike Windle
Getty Images for Vanity Fair
From left, Elon Musk, Sam Altman and Andrew Ross Sorkin, New York Times financial columnist, speak during the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on Oct. 6, 2015, in San Francisco.

Elon Musk has sued OpenAI and its CEO Sam Altman, claiming that the company failed to keep its promise of developing AI tools for "the benefit of humanity" over maximizing profits.

Musk helped launch and fund OpenAI in its early years. His lawyers argue that Musk poured time, money and recruiting resources to the AI lab, which was established in 2015, on the condition that it would remain a nonprofit "dedicated to creating safe, open-source AGI for public benefit," referring to artificial general intelligence — the point at which machines surpass the capabilities of the human brain.

The suit, which was filed Thursday in Superior Court in San Francisco, accuses OpenAI, Altman and the company's president Greg Brockman of breaking their agreement with Musk by abandoning those founding principles over the years.

The Tesla CEO is asking the court to order OpenAI, which is now backed by Microsoft, to make its research and technology available to public, as well as prohibit the company's executives and Microsoft from receiving any financial gain from its work.

Musk is also seeking damages, though the amount is unclear. Musk's lawyers say any compensation from the suit will be given to a nonprofit or charity.

OpenAI declined to comment.

Musk's lawsuit scrutinizing OpenAI's founding ethos taps into criticism the company has faced since the release of ChatGPT propelled the company's profile and attracted billions of dollars in outside investment.

OpenAI's structure is unusual for a tech company.

A nonprofit board oversees its for-profit arm, which at times can create tension over how quickly to commercialize products. The at-times dueling sides were on display last year when Altman was abruptly ousted then brought back to the company.

The drama was partially fueled by the fear that OpenAI was sidestepping safety concerns by publicly releasing new AI products too quickly. Altman has denied this.

There have been calls for OpenAI to dissolve its nonprofit side, but the unorthodox structure remains in place.

According to the suit, Altman approached Musk in 2015 out of shared concerns over the risks of AI and specifically, the AI research lab owned by Google known as DeepMind.

After all parties agreed that OpenAI would be nonprofit and open-sourced, Musk contributed more than $44 million to the ChatGPT maker between 2016 and 2020, the suit says.

Musk's lawyers also describe him as "instrumental" to OpenAI's recruiting efforts, including the hiring of Ilya Sutskever, who left Google to be the chief scientist at OpenAI.

In 2018, Musk stepped down as co-chair of OpenAI, though the suit says he continued to contribute to the company and regularly received updates about the company from Altman, Sutskever and Brockman.

The complaint argues that the company went wayward in recent years after decisions to create a for-profit subsidiary, give Microsoft an exclusive license to some of its technology, and keeping secret the internal design of ChatGPT's latest version.

"OpenAI Inc. has been transformed into a closed-source de facto subsidiary of the largest technology company, Microsoft," accoridng to the suit.

OpenAI and Altman have been thrown into turmoil repeatedly since the company's chatbot made its public debut in November 2022.

Musk has been openly part of the backlash. Last year, he told then-Fox News host Tucker Carlson that ChatGPT has a liberal bias, and he planned to provide an alternative.

In July, Musk launched his own AI startup called xAI to create AI tools that "assist humanity in its quest for understanding and knowledge."

Musk's company offers a limited number of users in the U.S. the opportunity to try the prototype and provide feedback, though early access requires a paid subscription to another Musk company, X, formerly known as Twitter.

NPR's Bobby Allyn contributed to this report. contributed to this story

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Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.