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Sir Nigel Shadbolt spearheading Oxford’s AI ethics institute

Sir Nigel Shadbolt, one of the UK’s most high-profile computer scientists, has been tasked with overseeing the development of a new Oxford University institute focused on the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI).

The institute will sit within a new humanities centre funded by the US billionaire Stephen Schwarzman to the tune of £150m, and bring together academics from across the university to study the ethical implications of AI.

Schwarzman, founder of the Blackstone finance group and a former adviser to President Donald Trump, has previously donated $350m to AI research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He said on Wednesday (20 June) he wanted to ensure mistakes made during the development of the internet were not repeated with AI.

The American businessman discussed the donation primarily with Oxford’s vice-chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson, but NS Tech understands he has met a number of university representatives including its head of humanities, Professor Karen O’Brien, and Shadbolt, who is a prominent figure within the UK’s tech industry.

Shadbolt is a professor of computer science at Oxford, the Principal of Jesus College and the chairman and co-founder – alongside Sir Tim Berners-Lee – of the UK’s Open Data Institute. At the ODI, he has been a champion of public sector organisations opening up anonymised data sets, such as Transport for London’s real-time travel information, to developers and researchers.

He has previously suggested the UK is well placed to lead the AI ethics debate. “If we can build regulatory authorities that balance the interests in data exploitation similar to that which was done regarding stem cells in human embryology, that makes for a really credible argument for data as an innovation space for the UK,” he told Computer Weekly last year.

NS Tech understands that Shadbolt has been working in recent weeks with academics at Oxford to define the scope of the Institute for Ethics in AI and now plans to reach out to other experts in the field around the world. The institute’s director has yet to be appointed, but it’s understood that Shadbolt will continue to play a central role once it has officially launched.

The university already has several research units carrying out work on AI ethics, including the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), Future of Humanity Institute and Centre for Governance of AI. As the New Statesman reported earlier this month, the OII has received funding from tech companies, including Google and its subsidiary Deepmind, to study issues surrounding AI such as the explainability of algorithms, which are increasingly being used to make life-changing decisions.

A number of US tech firms have recently announced plans to fund academic research into AI. Facebook revealed in January it was set to donate $7.5m to the Technical University of Munich to launch an AI ethics centre. Two months later, Amazon launched a partnership with the US National Science Foundation “to commit up to $10m each in research grants over the next three years focused on fairness in AI”.

Staff at Oxford working on AI ethics will not be relocated to the institute, NS Tech understands. Instead the institute will provide a collaborative research structure where academics from humanities, computer science, statistics, medical sciences, law and government can work together. It’s expected that the university’s philosophers and computer scientists will play a particularly prominent role at the institute.

“In the 20th Century, philosophers established the field of medical ethics and it changed the practice of medicine,” said Shadbolt. “In the 21st Century, we want to establish the foundations of AI ethics, and we expect that to change the deployment and use of artificial intelligence for the betterment of all humanity.”

The university refused to reveal how much of Schwarzman’s £150m donation, the largest since the renaissance, would go towards the institute. But it’s likely that the majority of the gift will contribute to the cost of building the humanities centre, which will include 250-seat and 500-seat auditoriums, and is expected to cost £230m in total. The centre is expected to open in 2024 if the university secures planning permission in time. But the associated cultural programme and research will begin later this year.

A spokesperson for the university said there were no special or secret conditions attached to Schwarzman’s funding. “As with all donations, it will not affect the independence of academic research and teaching,” he said. “[The funding] is an endorsement of academics here, not a limitation of their activity.”

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