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‘Taking funding from Big Tech is problematic,’ says first director of Oxford AI ethics institute

The inaugural director of Oxford University’s new AI ethics institute has signalled his opposition to Silicon Valley’s bankrolling of academic policy research.

John Tasioulas, a philosopher who is due to take the helm of Oxford’s Institute for Ethics in AI next month, warned that “in order to have any credibility and to avoid any accusations of bias, I think the whole idea of receiving funding from that sector is problematic”.

Tasioulas noted that the decision around who to accept funding from would ultimately be made by a steering committee. But if his wishes are respected, the institute would be one of the few tech ethics research centres in Europe not to be tied financially to the industry.

The new Institute for Ethics in AI has been launched as part of a £150m investment in Oxford’s humanities faculty funded by the US private equity billionaire Stephen Schwarzman. A former adviser to Donald Trump, Schwarzman has said he hopes that research produced by the institute will help prevent AI engineers from repeating mistakes made during the formative stages of the internet’s development.

Last year, the New Statesman revealed that Oxford had received at least £17m from Google over the previous five years. Most of the funding was earmarked for technical research, but Google and its sister company DeepMind have also funded studies on the ethics of AI, the civic responsibilities of tech firms and research into the auditing and transparency of automated decision-making.

Some academics at the university came under criticism for failing to declare the funding in papers written on similar subjects to those Google had paid them to investigate.

In 2017, the Campaign for Accountability revealed that Google had funded 329 research papers published since 2005 that were focused on “public policy matters of interest” to the company.

The institute will sit in the philosophy department and strike links with academics from a range of disciplines, including computer science and law.

Tasioulas is an Australian-Greek philosopher who currently works at King’s College London. He studied as an undergraduate at Melbourne University, before completing a PhD at Oxford. He specialises in moral, legal and political philosophy.