show image

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

The inaugural director of Oxford University’s Institute for Ethics in AI has signalled his opposition to the practice of Silicon Valley giants funding tech ethics research.

John Tasioulas, a philosophy professor who is due to take on the new role at the start of 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 the director’s wishes are respected, the Institute for Ethics in AI would be one of the few tech ethics centres in Europe not to be tied financially to industry.

Last year, the New Statesman revealed that Oxford had received at least £17m from Google over the previous five years. Most of the funding went towards technical research, but Google and its sister company DeepMind have also funded research into 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 have come under criticism after failing to declare the funding in papers written on similar subjects to those Google had paid them to investigate.

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

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 billionaire Stephen Schwarzman, who has advised the US president Donald Trump.

Schwarzman has said he hopes that research produced by the institute will help AI developers from repeating mistakes made during the formative stages of the internet’s development.

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.