Elon Musk and Sam Altman founded OpenAI together, but are now at odds in a lawsuit. Here’s the history of their working relationship and feud.

Elon Musk and Sam Altman founded OpenAI together, but are now at odds in a lawsuit. Here’s the history of...

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OpenAI CEO Sam Altman and Elon Musk
OpenAI CEO Sam Altman and Elon Musk

  • Elon Musk helped found OpenAI, but he has frequently criticized it in recent years and is now suing.
  • OpenAI CEO Sam Altman has called Musk a “jerk” but said the Tesla CEO “really does care” about AI risks.
  • Here’s a history of Musk and Altman’s working relationship.

Elon Musk and Sam Altman lead rival AI firms and now take public jabs at each other — but it wasn’t always like this.

Years ago, the two cofounded OpenAI, which Altman now leads. Musk departed OpenAI, which created ChatGPT, in 2018 and recently announced his own AI venture, xAI, and AI chatbot, Grok.

Now, Musk is suing Altman and OpenAI, saying they’ve betrayed the firm’s founding principles, namely of being open-source and “a nonprofit developing AGI for the benefit of humanity.”

Here’s a look at Musk and Altman’s complicated relationship over the years:

Musk and Altman cofounded OpenAI, the creator of ChatGPT, in 2015, alongside other Silicon Valley figures, including Peter Thiel, LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman, and Y Combinator cofounder Jessica Livingston.
OpenAI CEO Sam Altman and Elon Musk
OpenAI CEO Sam Altman and Elon Musk

The group aimed to create a nonprofit focused on developing artificial intelligence “in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole,” according to a statement on OpenAI’s website from December 11, 2015.

Source: Business Insider

At the time, Musk said that AI was the “biggest existential threat” to humanity.
Elon Musk, the owner of Twitter, is pushing for a harder-driving culture at the company.
Elon Musk is CEO of Twitter.

“It’s hard to fathom how much human-level AI could benefit society, and it’s equally hard to imagine how much it could damage society if built or used incorrectly,” a statement announcing the founding of OpenAI reads.

Source: BBCOpenAI

Musk stepped down from OpenAI’s board of directors in 2018.
Elon Musk greets onlookers with both hands waving, at the 2022 Met Gala

“As Tesla continues to become more focused on AI, this will eliminate a potential future conflict for Elon,” OpenAI said in a blog post at the time, adding that Musk would continue to provide guidance and donations.

With his departure, Musk also backed out of a commitment to provide additional funding to OpenAI, a person involved in the matter told The New Yorker.

“It was very tough,” Altman told the magazine of the situation. “I had to reorient a lot of my life and time to make sure we had enough funding.”

Source: Business Insider, The New Yorker, Business Insider

In 2019, Musk shared some insight on his decision to leave, saying one of the reasons was that he “didn’t agree” with where OpenAI was headed.
Elon Musk
Elon Musk.

“I had to focus on solving a painfully large number of engineering & manufacturing problems at Tesla (especially) & SpaceX,” he tweeted. “Also, Tesla was competing for some of same people as OpenAI & I didn’t agree with some of what OpenAI team wanted to do. Add that all up & it was just better to part ways on good terms.”

Source: Business Insider

Musk has taken shots at OpenAI on several occasions since leaving.
Elon Musk making a grimace and pointing a finger.

Two years after his departure, Musk said, “OpenAI should be more open” in response to an MIT Technology Review article reporting that there was a culture of secrecy there, despite OpenAI frequently proclaiming a commitment to transparency.

Musk also added that his “confidence in Dario for safety is not high,” referring to Dario Amodei, who led OpenAI’s strategy at the time.

Source: Business Insider


In December 2022, days after OpenAI released ChatGPT, Musk said the company had prior access to the database of Twitter — now owned by Musk — to train the AI chatbot and that he was putting that on hold.

“Need to understand more about governance structure & revenue plans going forward. OpenAI was started as open-source & non-profit. Neither are still true,” he said.

Source: Twitter

Musk was reportedly furious about ChatGPT’s success, Semafor reported in 2023.
Elon Musk
When asked about the future of AI and work, Elon Musk says he has to have a “deliberate suspension of disbelief in order to remain motivated.”

In November, the chatbot took off and garnered millions of users for its ability to do everything from write essays to craft basic code.

Source: Semafor, Business Insider

In February 2023, Musk doubled down, saying OpenAI as it exists today is “not what I intended at all.”
L-R) Tesla Motors CEO and Product Architect Elon Musk and Y Combinator President Sam Altman speak onstage during "What Will They Think of Next? Talking About Innovation" at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on October 6, 2015 in San Francisco, California.
Musk repeated this assertion a month later.
OpenAI logo displayed on a phone screen and Elon Musk's Twitter account displayed on a screen in the background

“I’m still confused as to how a non-profit to which I donated ~$100M somehow became a $30B market cap for-profit. If this is legal, why doesn’t everyone do it?” he tweeted.

Source: Twitter

Now, Musk is turning his complaints into a lawsuit.
Elon Musk Sam Altman
Elon Musk and Sam Altman

He’s suing OpenAI, Altman, and cofounder Greg Brockman, alleging that the company’s direction in recent years has violated its founding principles.

His lawyers allege that OpenAI “has been transformed into a closed-source de facto subsidiary of the largest technology company in the world” and is “refining an AGI to maximize profits for Microsoft, rather than for the benefit of humanity.”

OpenAI has not yet responded to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

Altman has addressed some of Musk’s gripes about OpenAI.
Sam Altman speaks at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2014 - Day 1 on May 5, 2014 in New York City.

“To say a positive thing about Elon, I think he really does care about a good future with AGI,” Altman said last year on an episode of the “On With Kara Swisher” podcast, referring to artificial general intelligence.

“I mean, he’s a jerk, whatever else you want to say about him — he has a style that is not a style that I’d want to have for myself,” Altman told Swisher. “But I think he does really care, and he is feeling very stressed about what the future’s going to look like for humanity.” 

In response to Musk’s claim that OpenAI has turned into “a closed source, maximum-profit company effectively controlled by Microsoft,” Altman said on the podcast, “Most of that is not true, and I think Elon knows that.”

Source: “On With Kara Swisher”, Business Insider

Altman also referred to Musk as one of his heroes despite the fact Musk is “obviously attacking” OpenAI on Twitter.
Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator and co-chairman of OpenAI, attends the annual Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference, July 8, 2016 in Sun Valley, Idaho. Every July, some of the world's most wealthy and powerful businesspeople from the media, finance, technology and political spheres converge at the Sun Valley Resort for the exclusive weeklong conference.

In a March 2023 episode of Lex Fridman’s podcast, Altman said, “Elon is obviously attacking us some on Twitter right now on a few different vectors.”

Nonetheless, he called Musk one of his heroes, adding, “I believe he is, understandably so, really stressed about AGI safety.”

Source: Lex Fridman Podcast, Business Insider

Altman says he’s learned some “super valuable” lessons from Musk.
Sam Altman
Musk was one of more than 1,000 people who signed an open letter calling for a six-month pause on training advanced AI systems.
Elon Musk attends The 2022 Met Gala.

The letter, which also received signatures from several AI experts, cites concerns of AI’s potential risks to humanity.

“Powerful AI systems should be developed only once we are confident that their effects will be positive and their risks will be manageable,” the letter says.

But while he was publicly calling for the pause, Musk was quietly building his own AI competitor, xAI, The New Yorker recently reported.

Source: Future of Life Institute, Business Insider, The New Yorker, Business Insider

Musk since briefly unfollowed Altman on Twitter before following him again; separately, Altman later poked fun at Musk’s claim to be a “free speech absolutist.”
sam altman wearing a black t shirt, black jacket, grey pants and sunglasses

Twitter recently took aim at posts linking to rival Substack, forbidding users from retweeting or replying to tweets containing such links, before reversing course. In response to a tweet about the situation, Altman tweeted, “Free speech absolutism on STEROIDS.”

Musk has called himself a “free speech absolutist” before and said it’s one of the reasons he bought Twitter.

Source: Big Tech Alert on Twitter, Twitter, Business Insider

Altman joked that he’d watch Musk and Mark Zuckerberg’s rumored cage fight.
Sam Altman
Sam Altman is CEO of ChatGPT maker OpenAI

“I would go watch if he and Zuck actually did that,” he said at the Bloomberg Technology Summit in June, though he said he doesn’t think he would ever challenge Musk in a physical fight.

Altman also repeated several of his previous remarks about Musk’s position on AI.

“He really cares about AI safety a lot,” Altman said at Bloomberg’s summit. “We have differences of opinion on some parts but we both care about that and he wants to make sure we, the world, have the maximal chance at a good outcome.”

Separately, Altman recently told The New Yorker Musk has a my-way-or-the highway approach to issues more broadly.

“Elon desperately wants the world to be saved. But only if he can be the one to save it,” Altman said.

Source: Bloomberg, Business Insider, The New Yorker

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