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Oxford launches global search for AI ethics institute’s first director

Oxford University has launched an international search for the inaugural director of its new Institute for Ethics in AI.

The institute was announced in June this year after the US private equity billionaire Stephen Schwarzman gifted the university £150m, the largest single donation in Oxford’s history.

The research unit will be housed in a new humanities centre funded by the donation and bring together academics specialising in philosophy, computer science and law, among other disciplines, as well as experts working in industry and government.

As NS Tech revealed in June, Sir Nigel Shadbolt – the principal of Jesus College Oxford and the co-founder of the Open Data Institute – has been spearheading development of the institute, which is set to be one of the best funded tech ethics research centres in the world.

When the funding was announced, Schwarzman, who is the founder of the Blackstone finance group and a former advisor to President Donald Trump, said he wanted to ensure mistakes made during the development of the internet were not repeated with AI. He has previously donated $350m to AI research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The American businessman discussed the donation primarily with Oxford’s vice-chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson, but also met a number of other university representatives including its head of humanities, Professor Karen O’Brien, as well as Shadbolt.

In a statement shared with NS Tech, Shadbolt said: “It is a privilege to be helping to set up the University of Oxford’s Institute for Ethics in AI. We are now looking to appoint a Director who will provide intellectual vision and furnish strategic leadership for the Institute.

“They will be leading a rapidly growing body of researchers, drawing down on the extraordinary resources available here in the University and with the opportunity to attract world class talent from across the globe in this vitally important area of research what will affect us all.”

A job advert posed on Saturday (30 November) said the role would be open to “academics with an international reputation and wide-ranging research and leadership profile within Ethics in AI”, signalling the university is not inclined to take candidates from government or industry.

According to the advert, the ideal candidate with have a doctorate, an “outstanding record of research achievement” in the same field and experience leading the development of world-class research initiatives. The successful applicant will report to the chair of the philosophy faculty’s board, which is currently Chris Timpson. The salary range has not been disclosed.

It is likely that in addition to overseeing the institute’s research programmes and relationships with other areas of the university, the director will also be tasked with developing relationships with other potential funders, including those in the tech sector. The candidate will have “a successful track record of attracting and managing significant research income, alongside an ability and willingness to engage with the Institute’s fundraising activities,” the advert states.

Oxford already has three 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 announced plans this year to fund academic research into AI ethics. 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”.

Ursula von der Leyen, the incoming president of the European Commission, revealed this week that she intends to draw up new legislation to govern AI. “It is not about damming up the flow of data,” she told members of the European parliament. “It is about making rules that define how to handle data responsibly. For us the protection of a person’s digital identity is the overriding priority.”

It is likely that policymakers in Brussels, Westminster and Washington will turn to the Institute for AI Ethics to determine how to create legislation which ensures artificial intelligence is developed in a way that protects users.

The university has called on candidates to submit their applications before 12 noon on 15 January.

Sir Nigel Shadbolt spearheading Oxford’s AI ethics institute