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  • Marijan Hassan - Tech Journalist

Elon Musk sues OpenAI for abandoning non-profit mission

Elon Musk, the billionaire entrepreneur, has filed a lawsuit against OpenAI and its CEO, Sam Altman, accusing them of deviating from the company’s core mission of serving humanity's interests with artificial intelligence.

Musk who played a big role in the early stages of the AI startup asserts that Altman's recent actions have prioritized profits over the ethical development of AI, a move he sees as a betrayal.

The lawsuit notes that when Musk, Altman, and Greg Brockman (OpenAI’s president, who is also being sued) started the company, they envisioned a non-profit initiative aimed at counterbalancing the potential dangers of AI posed by for-profit companies like Google.

The trio wanted to operate an AI lab dedicated to serving humanity's interests, operating on open-source principles.

Unfortunately, the company has completely taken a completely different path and Musk believes the trouble started with Microsoft’s investment in OpenAI.

Now, OpenAI’s focus has shifted towards developing Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) for commercial gain, a move that Musk says jeopardizes the safety and well-being of humanity. The lawsuit began by echoing Musk’s longstanding concerns about the existential threats posed by AGI.

“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”.

The lawsuit goes on, “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 maximize profits for Microsoft, rather than for the benefit of humanity.”

Moreover, Musk has noted in the lawsuit that the release of GPT-4, a powerful AI model, without transparency regarding its design and functionality is yet another demonstration of how far OpenAI has deviated from its original mission.

The lawsuit has also made mention of a pivotal moment in November 2023 when Altman was dismissed as CEO of OpenAI, only to be reinstated shortly thereafter. Musk argues that this episode underscores Microsoft's leverage over OpenAI, raising questions about the company's independence and adherence to its founding principles.

Central to Musk's legal challenge is the demand for OpenAI to return to its original mission of developing AGI for the benefit of humanity.

As details of the suit continue to become public, legal experts have started weighing on the issue with some not entirely convinced of its viability.

Brian Quinn, a professor at Boston College law school in the US, for instance, notes that Musk does not have the standing to sue for breach of the OpenAI board’s certificate of incorporation because he was not a board member. 

He also says a demand for return of money that Musk invested in OpenAI was also likely to fail because the suit claimed OpenAI veered from its mission in 2023 – long after Musk stopped supporting the non-profit.

Whether the suit fails or succeeds, the fact is it raises some important questions on AI development and the need for oversight to ensure the technology does not negatively impact the society.

OpenAI’s deal with Microsoft is also being scrutinized by competition authorities in the US, the EU and the UK.


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