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OpenAI CEO Sam Altman attends the 54th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 18.Denis Balibouse/Reuters

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk has sued ChatGPT-maker OpenAI and its chief executive officer, Sam Altman, saying they abandoned the startup’s original mission to develop artificial intelligence for the benefit of humanity and not for profit.

The lawsuit filed late on Thursday in California Superior Court in San Francisco is a culmination to Mr. Musk’s long-simmering opposition to the startup he co-founded and which has since become the face of generative AI, partly due to billions of dollars in funding from Microsoft MSFT-Q. Mr. Musk has gone on to found his own artificial intelligence startup, xAI, which he launched last July.

Mr. Musk in the lawsuit alleged a breach of contract, saying Mr. Altman and co-founder Greg Brockman originally approached him to make an open source, non-profit company, but the startup established in 2015 is now focused on making money.

Recounting OpenAI’s founding, Mr. Musk said the three men had agreed to work on artificial general intelligence (AGI), a concept that machines could handle tasks like a human, but in a way that would “benefit humanity,” according to the lawsuit.

OpenAI would also work in opposition to Alphabet Inc.’s Google, which Mr. Musk said he believed was developing AGI for profit and would pose grave risks.

Instead, OpenAI “set the founding agreement aflame” in 2023 when it released its most powerful language model GPT-4 as essentially a Microsoft product, the lawsuit alleged.

Mr. Musk has sought a court ruling that would compel OpenAI to make its research and technology available to the public and prevent the startup from using its assets, including GPT-4, for the financial gains of Microsoft or any individual.

OpenAI, Microsoft and Musk did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.

Mr. Musk is also seeking a ruling that GPT-4 and a new and more advanced technology called Q* would be considered AGI and therefore outside of Microsoft’s license to OpenAI.

Musk, who runs electric vehicle maker Tesla, rocket maker SpaceX and social media platform X, decided to try to seize control of OpenAI from Altman and the other founders in late 2017, aiming to convert it into a commercial entity in partnership with Tesla, utilizing the automaker’s supercomputers, said one source with knowledge of the situation.

Altman and others resisted, and Musk resigned, saying he wanted to focus on Tesla’s AI projects. He announced his exit to OpenAI staff in February 2018 during a meeting at which Musk called for OpenAI to increase its development speed, which one researcher called reckless, the source said.

Musk did not respond to request for comment about his exit from OpenAI.

Since then, Musk on several occasions has called for regulation of AI.

“We expect this will have 0 impact on AI development inside or outside of OpenAI, and would chalk it up to Musk seeking to get a slice of equity in a company he effectively founded but in which he holds no stake,” said Giuseppe Sette, president and co-founder of market research firm Toggle AI.

OpenAI’s tie-up with Microsoft is under antitrust scrutiny in the United States and Britain following the startup’s boardroom battle last year that resulted in the sudden ouster and return of Mr. Altman and the creation of a new temporary board.

The startup is planning to appoint new board members in March, the Washington Post reported on Thursday. Microsoft said in November it would have a non-voting, observer seat on the board.

Some legal experts said Mr. Musk’s allegations of breach of contract, which is partly based on an e-mail between Mr. Musk and Mr. Altman, could fail to hold up in court.

While contracts can be formed through a series of emails, the lawsuit cites an e-mail that appears to look like a proposal and a “one-sided discussion,” said Brian Quinn, a law professor at Boston College Law School.

“To the extent Musk is claiming that the single e-mail in Exhibit 2 is the ‘contract,’ he will fall well short,” Prof. Quinn said.

Mr. Musk’s rival AI effort with xAI is made up of engineers hired from some of the top U.S. technology firms such as Google and Microsoft that he hopes to challenge.

The startup started rolling out its ChatGPT competitor Grok for Premium+ subscribers of social media platform X in December and aims to create what Mr. Musk has said would be a “maximum truth-seeking AI.”

According to xAI’s website, the startup is a separate company from Mr. Musk’s other businesses, but will work closely with X and Tesla.

Mr. Musk has also made waves about his interest in artificial intelligence via Tesla. In January, he stirred controversy with Tesla shareholders, saying he felt uncomfortable growing the carmaker into a leader in AI and robotics unless he had at least 25-per-cent voting control of the company. Mr. Musk, who ranked second on the Forbes Real-Time Billionaires List on Friday, at an estimated worth of $210.6-billion, currently owns about 13 per cent of Tesla.

Mr. Musk, who has called AI a “double-edged sword,” was among a group of AI experts and industry executives who last year called for a six-month pause in developing systems more powerful than OpenAI’s GPT-4, citing great risks to humanity and society.

Since its debut, ChatGPT has been adopted by companies for a wide range of tasks from summarizing documents to writing computer code, setting off a race among Big Tech companies to launch their own offerings based on generative AI.

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