COLLABORATION

University collaboration leading the fight in AI ethics

SOURCE: Pajor Pawel/Shutterstock
Oxford University received a £150 million donation to set up an Institute for Ethics in Artificial Intelligence.


By U2B Staff 

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The rapidly growing capabilities and increasing presence of AI-based systems in our lives raise pressing questions about the impact, governance, ethics, and accountability of these technologies around the world.

Algorithms are already playing a growing role in critical aspects of society like criminal justice, education, and healthcare, so the implications if things go awry are considerable. And worryingly the cracks are already beginning to show.

Behind the machines and algorithms are the flawed human engineers that create them. While the tech giants in Silicon Valley aim to ensure the designers of AI are broadly representative of humanity, the lack of diversity in many companies ultimately means they are not. This, in turn, leads to subconscious bias appearing in the algorithms that control our lives.

Research has shown that so much of the automated systems today replicate and amplify biases and discriminatory practices.

The machine learning algorithms behind the most popular online language tools have been found to pick up deeply ingrained race and gender prejudices.

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Facial recognition software, which has gained in prevalence among law enforcement agencies over the last several years, has been mired in controversy because of its effect on people of colour. The Human Rights Law Centre warned back in 2018 that the facial matching technology proposed by the UK government risks racial bias and would have a chilling effect on the right to freedom of assembly without further safeguards.

Include in the concerns things like self-driving cars and military-use technologies and we’re literally putting our lives in the hands of code that, in some cases, no one really understands.

For an industry that has such huge – and potentially devastating – implications, it cannot be left to develop unchecked.

Billionaire Stephen Schwarzman recognises this crisis and his putting his money where his mouth is to combat some of the threats.

The co-founder of Blackstone Group donated £150 million (US$188 million) to Oxford University on Tuesday, making it the university’s largest single donation “since the Renaissance.”

The money will go towards a big boost in the Humanities with the Stephen A Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities slated to open its doors in 2024. The centre will house all of the university’s humanities subjects as well as, crucially, an Institute for Ethics in Artificial Intelligence.

Schwarzman isn’t alone in his belief that “technology can’t be allowed to just do whatever it wants because it can.” He is in a growing number of wealthy philanthropists who are increasingly seeing AI and the ethics related to it as the major issue of our age.

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Last year, the founder of eBay Pierre Omidyar set up Luminate, an organisation dedicated to empowering the public when it comes to data and digital rights. They have committed millions to monitoring AI and its impacts.

“One of the things we’ve discovered is artificial intelligence is developed by programmers who are not concerned with the ethical consequences,” Stephen King, Luminate’s CEO, told Forbes in April.

Schwarzman’s concern is that governments are simply not prepared for the future of AI and lack the knowledge on the potential risks. He believes universities hold the key to this, providing a central hub of expertise that can bridge the gap between government and the user.

“We have the core of values and knowledge of western civilisation in one place and we can use that knowledge to inform the dialogue going on globally by a small group of people who are developing this [AI] technology,” said Schwarzman in an interview.

“At the moment, most governments are utterly unprepared to deal with this, and why would they be, it’s a different type of technology.”

Universities will likely remain at the forefront of this new mission to keep AI in check, helped along by generous donations from billionaires who see the looming potential and want to better understand it before it gets out of control.