Elon Musk, an early investor in OpenAI, is suing the company, claiming it has departed from its original mission to “benefit humanity.”

Earlier this month, news broke that Elon Musk was launching a quixotic lawsuit against OpenAI, the innovative artificial intelligence outfit he co-founded with Sam Altman. Musk was an early financial supporter of OpenAI, and on its surface, the suit alleges breach of contract and seeks the return of Musk’s original investment.

But as someone who teaches ethical philosophy, it’s clear to me that Musk is intentionally trying to couch his narrow legal charge in a much broader — and very explicit — moral argument. I’m not buying it.

According to the suit, the Tesla CEO originally got involved with OpenAI so that he could help develop the technology for the “benefit of humanity.” But now, he alleges, “Mr. Altman (has) caused OpenAI to radically depart from its original mission,” abandoning his principles in the pursuit of “profit and power.” The risks of doing so are potentially dire because Musk “has long recognized that AGI (artificial general intelligence) poses a grave threat to humanity.” Mr. Altman, we presume, does not, and Musk demands that OpenAI return to its “humanitarian mission.”

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In framing the allegations in this way, Musk is doing more than preparing to sue; he’s establishing (or perhaps reestablishing) himself as a moral authority on artificial intelligence — and more importantly, as someone who won’t sacrifice his principles. He’s positioning himself as a bulwark against profit-hungry speculators who supposedly just don’t care about the threats the technology poses. And the media has already begun to bite, with Fortune writer Jeremy Kahn claiming that while the suit’s legal argument is weak, “the questions it raises are not” and Daily Beast tech editor Tony Ho Tran arguing that Musk “has a point” in his lawsuit.

But we can’t take the bait and let Musk use this lawsuit to grab the reins in this crucial conversation. Because one of the world’s richest people is also a moral fabulist of the first rank and has a long history of cloaking his petty aims in high-flung — but ultimately meaningless — ethical language.

Perhaps the most famous example is Musk’s 2022 purchase of Twitter. Experts are still debating the reasons behind the sale, but Musk’s stated goal from the start was that he wanted to help humanity: “I didn’t do it to make more money. I did it to try to help humanity, whom I love. And I do so with humility, recognizing that failure in pursuing this goal, despite our best efforts, is a very real possibility.” He continued elsewhere, suggesting that he wanted Twitter to be a “common digital town square” where people could discuss and debate “without resorting to violence.”

Listen to this veritable St. Teresa of Tech, preaching compassion, eschewing personal gain and quashing violence — and with modesty. No matter that he may have bought Twitter just to keep one user from tracking his private jet. Either that or because his ex-wife wanted him to reinstate the Babylon Bee, her favorite news satire site, and purge the social media provider of “woke-ism.”

Or take as another instance Musk’s touting of Hyperloop, an ultra-efficient sub-sonic (or perhaps even supersonic) pod that would rocket passengers through underground vacuum tubes. Musk often referred to Hyperloop as a “fifth mode” of transport that would be “faster than trains, safer than cars and much less damaging to the environment than aircraft.” Here we see Sustainability Musk, revolutionizing clean travel and doing his part to help save the planet.

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But as tech writer Paris Marx later discovered, Musk was likely only feigning interest in the technology in hopes of getting California regulators to abandon plans for high-speed rail in that state. That such trains would likely drive down demand for Teslas was I’m sure beside the point.

These and other similar cases are part of a larger pattern of moral laxity identified by Villanova Law Professor and business ethics specialist J.S. Nelson, who believes that Musk has a habit of breaking trust not only with the public but with lots of other groups of stakeholders, from investors to suppliers and employees to regulators. Many of these habits have been on full display since he purchased Twitter, during which time he’s threatened to back out of contracts, fired or forced out the majority of his workers and is even being sued for nonpayment of rent in certain jurisdictions.

For Nelson, such decisions have financial and moral costs, telling Harvard Law Today: “He is starting to feel the repercussions of having destroyed the ethical assumptions that underlie many of (his business) relationships.” And yet the fact that he’s destroyed some of these “ethical assumptions” — and may even know it — might also help us understand why he’s trying to regain some moral standing in the language of his OpenAI suit.

But we can’t let him. Because when it comes to a technology that could “help humanity” as much as AI could, Elon Musk has proven that he just can’t be trusted.

Joshua Pederson teaches ethical philosophy at Boston University and is the author of “Sin Sick: Moral Injury in War and Literature.”

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Elon Musk is trying to reestablish himself as a moral authority on AI. Don’t buy it

17 1
12.03.2024

Elon Musk, an early investor in OpenAI, is suing the company, claiming it has departed from its original mission to “benefit humanity.”

Earlier this month, news broke that Elon Musk was launching a quixotic lawsuit against OpenAI, the innovative artificial intelligence outfit he co-founded with Sam Altman. Musk was an early financial supporter of OpenAI, and on its surface, the suit alleges breach of contract and seeks the return of Musk’s original investment.

But as someone who teaches ethical philosophy, it’s clear to me that Musk is intentionally trying to couch his narrow legal charge in a much broader — and very explicit — moral argument. I’m not buying it.

According to the suit, the Tesla CEO originally got involved with OpenAI so that he could help develop the technology for the “benefit of humanity.” But now, he alleges, “Mr. Altman (has) caused OpenAI to radically depart from its original mission,” abandoning his principles in the pursuit of “profit and power.” The risks of doing so are potentially dire because Musk “has long recognized that AGI (artificial general intelligence) poses a grave threat to humanity.” Mr. Altman, we presume, does not, and Musk demands that OpenAI return to its “humanitarian mission.”

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In framing the allegations in this way, Musk is doing........

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