Elon Musk + Sam Altman Launch OpenAI Nonprofit That Will Use AI To “Benefit Humanity”

Led by an all-star team of Silicon Valley’s best and brightest, OpenAI already has $1 billion in funding.

Elon Musk + Sam Altman Launch OpenAI Nonprofit That Will Use AI To “Benefit Humanity”
[Photo: Flickr user Tama Leaver]

Silicon Valley is in the midst of an artificial intelligence war, as giants like Facebook and Google attempt to outdo each other by deploying machine learning and AI to automate services. But a brand-new organization called OpenAI–helmed by Elon Musk and a posse of prominent techies–aims to use AI to “benefit humanity,” without worrying about profit.


Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, took to Twitter to announce OpenAI on Friday afternoon.

The organization, the formation of which has been in discussions for quite a while, came together in earnest over the last couple of months, co-chair and Y Combinator CEO Sam Altman told Fast Company. It is launching with $1 billion in funding from the likes of Altman, Musk, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, and Palantir chairman Peter Thiel. In an introductory blog post, the OpenAI team said “we expect to only spend a tiny fraction of this in the next few years.”

Noting that it’s not yet clear on what it will accomplish, OpenAI explains that its nonprofit status should afford it more flexibility. “Since our research is free from financial obligations, we can better focus on a positive human impact,” the blog post reads. “We believe AI should be an extension of individual human wills and, in the spirit of liberty, as broadly and evenly distributed as is possible safely.”

The organization features an all-star group of leaders: Musk and Altman are co-chairs, while Google research scientist Ilya Sutskever is research director and Greg Brockman is CTO, a role he formerly held at payments company Stripe.

For nearly everyone involved in OpenAI, the project will be full-time work, Altman explained. For his part, it will be a “major commitment,” while Musk is expected to “come in every week, every other week, something like that.”

Altman explained that everything OpenAI works on–including any intellectual property it creates–will be made public. The one exception, he said, is if it could pose a safety risk. “Generally speaking,” Altman told Fast Company, “we’ll make all our patents available to the world.”


Companies like Facebook and Google are working fast to use AI. Just yesterday, Facebook announced it is open-sourcing new computing hardware, known as “Big Sur,” that doubles the power and efficiency of computers currently available for AI research. Facebook has also recently talked about using AI to help its blind users, as well as to make broad tasks easier on the giant social networking service. Google, according to Recode, has also put significant efforts into AI research and development, but has been somewhat less willing to give away the fruits of its labor.

Altman said he imagines that OpenAI will work with both of those companies, as well as any others interested in AI. “One of the nice things about our structure is that because there is no fiduciary duty,” he said, “we can collaborate with anyone.”

For now, there are no specific collaborations in the works, Altman added, though he expects that to change quickly now that OpenAI has been announced.

Ultimately, while many companies are working on artificial intelligence as part of for-profit projects, Altman said he thinks OpenAI’s mission–and funding–shouldn’t threaten anyone. “I would be very concerned if they didn’t like our mission,” he said. “We’re just trying to create new knowledge and give it to the world.”

About the author

Daniel Terdiman is a San Francisco-based technology journalist with nearly 20 years of experience. A veteran of CNET and VentureBeat, Daniel has also written for Wired, The New York Times, Time, and many other publications.