Economy

Why Elon Musk Is Taking OpenAI and Sam Altman to Court

Elon Musk, the tech billionaire, has escalated his feud with OpenAI and its C.E.O., Sam Altman.Credit…Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Musk takes aim at OpenAI

The gloves have really come off in one of the most personal fights in the tech world: Elon Musk has sued OpenAI and its C.E.O., Sam Altman, accusing them of reneging on the start-up’s original purpose of being a nonprofit laboratory for the technology.

Yes, Musk has disagreed with Altman for years about the purpose of the organization they co-founded and he is creating a rival artificial intelligence company. But the lawsuit also appears rooted in philosophical differences that go to the heart of who controls a hugely transformative technology — and is backed by one of the wealthiest men on the planet.

The backstory: Musk, Altman and others agreed to create OpenAI in 2015 to provide an open-sourced alternative to the likes of Google, which had bought the leading A.I. start-up DeepMind the year before. Musk notes in his suit that OpenAI’s certificate of incorporation states that its work “will benefit the public,” and that it isn’t “organized for the private gain of any person.”

Musk poured more than $44 million into OpenAI between 2016 and 2020, and helped hire top talent like the researcher Ilya Sutskever.

Altman has moved OpenAI toward commerce, starting with the creation in 2019 of a for-profit subsidiary that would raise money from investors, notably Microsoft. The final straw for Musk came last year, when OpenAI released its GPT-4 A.I. model — but kept its workings hidden from all except itself and Microsoft.

“OpenAI, Inc. has been transformed into a closed-source de facto subsidiary of the largest technology company in the world: Microsoft,” Musk’s lawyers write in the complaint.

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