OpenAI hits back at Elon Musk, saying he supported its for-profit ambitions

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ChatGPT creator OpenAI has hit back at Elon Musk, who is suing the company for chasing profits and forsaking its original, nonprofit mission of developing artificial intelligence to benefit all of humanity.

In a blog post Tuesday night, OpenAI published a number of partly redacted emails sent from Musk to company officials. The emails appear to show Musk (pictured) acknowledging that OpenAI would need to make a “ton of money” in order to fund the enormous computing resources it needed to bring its AI ambitions to life.

In the emails, Musk, one of the co-founders of OpenAI, argued that the company had virtually no chance of creating a successful generative AI platform by raising funding alone, and that it would need to find alternative revenue sources to survive.

For instance, in a November 2015 email to OpenAI Chief Executive Sam Altman, Musk stated his belief that the company would need to raise much more than $100 million if it were to “avoid sounding hopeless.” Instead, Musk suggested that the company commit to obtaining as much as $1 billion in funding, and promised that he would make up the shortfall in the event it failed to secure that amount.

OpenAI says Musk never followed through on that commitment and instead only provided $45 million in funding, while other donors raised $90 million.

Later, in a Feb. 1, 2018 email, Musk told OpenAI executives that the only viable path forward was for Tesla Inc., his electric car company, to buy the startup. The executives declined the suggestion, and Musk ultimately quit the company later that year.

In December 2018, Musk emailed Altman and other executives to say the company would not remain relevant without a dramatic change in execution and resources. He said “this needs billions per year immediately or forget it,” before adding, “I really hope I’m wrong.”

OpenAI’s executive team agreed with the need for billions of dollars and in 2019 formed OpenAI LP, which is a for-profit entity that exists within the company’s larger structure. It was OpenAI LP that saved the day, transforming what was essentially a worthless startup into the $90 billion valued company that it is today. Altman has been credited as being the mastermind of that transformation and pivotal to its success.

Since then, OpenAI has developed a very strong relationship with Microsoft Corp., which has committed over $13 billion in funding. Microsoft has become its closest partner and collaborator, and has privileged access to OpenAI’s technology.

In his lawsuit filed last week, Musk said OpenAI’s partnership with Microsoft violated its founding charter, and that this represents a breach of contract. Musk’s lawyers are asking for a trial jury and are demanding that it pays back the profits it earned through its OpenAI LP entity.

Musk’s lawyers further allege that the inner workings of GPT-4, the large language model that powers ChatGPT, are a complete secret “except to OpenAI – and on information and belief, Microsoft.” He argued that this secrecy is driven by commercial interest rather than for safety reasons.

OpenAI responded to the lawsuit, saying it intends to dismiss all of Musk’s claims.

Musk had been critical of OpenAI prior to filing his lawsuit. In November, he appeared at The New York Times’ DealBook conference, where he told an audience that the company had deviated from its original mission. “OpenAI should be renamed ‘super closed source for maximum profit AI,’ because this is what it actually is,” he said onstage at the event. He added that it has transformed from an “open-source foundation” to become a multibillion-dollar “for-profit corporation with closed-source” technology.

OpenAI was originally founded to counter what its founders believed was a serious threat posed to humanity by artificial generative intelligence, or AGI. Upon its founding, it created a board of overseers to review all products it created, and originally it made the code for all of its early projects public.

In its blog post, OpenAI said it has not diverged from its original mission and that it would move to dismiss all of Musk’s claims. The company insists that its technology is broadly available and that it helps to improve people’s lives. It also reiterated its commitment to the safety of its products.

“We’re sad that it has come to this with someone whom we’ve deeply admired – someone who inspired us to aim higher, then told us we would fail, started a competitor, and then sued us when we started making meaningful progress towards OpenAI’s mission without him,” the company said.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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