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Oxford University accepts £150m for artificial intelligence research

Oxford University has accepted £150m to build a new humanities hub that will include a centre for artificial intelligence ethics research from Stephen Schwarzman, a US private equity boss

Oxford University has accepted a £150m donation from Stephen Schwarzman, an American private equity boss, that will, in part, be devoted to the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI).

The £150m will be used to found a centre for humanities research named after its donor. It is the largest single donation to the university since the Renaissance, according to a statement from the university.

Schwarzman is the chairman, CEO and co-founder of Blackstone, described in the statement as the “world’s largest alternative investment firm”. He is a Republican who has advised Donald Trump.

In an interview with Computer Weekly last year, Nigel Shadbolt, the principal of Jesus College Oxford and co-founder of the Open Data Institute (ODI), said the UK had a plausible and realistic opportunity to lead the global AI community in the ethics of artificial intelligence.

He said, at that time: “I think we are well equipped to do that [lead on AI ethics]. We could have a ‘Warnock commission’ about privacy and data. 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.”

The Schwarzman Centre will be dedicated to the humanities. The university statement said: “History; linguistics, philology and phonetics; medieval and modern languages; music; philosophy; and theology and religion will be housed together with a new library in a space designed to encourage experiential learning and bold experimentation through cross-disciplinary and collaborative study.”

The centre will house Oxford’s Institute for Ethics in AI. But it will also include “performing arts and exhibition venues designed to engage the Oxford community and the public at large, and attract new audiences. Modern amenities and digital capabilities will finally allow for the full breadth of Oxford’s unparalleled collections and research in the humanities to be shared externally.”

Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, said: “This generous donation from Stephen Schwarzman marks a significant endorsement of the value of the humanities in the 21st century and in Oxford University as the world leader in the field. The Schwarzman Centre will open a vibrant cultural programme to the public and will enable Oxford to remain at the forefront of both research and teaching while demonstrating the critical role the humanities will play in helping human society navigate the technological changes of the 21st century.”

“If AI is to benefit humanity, we must understand its moral and ethical implications. Oxford, with its rich history in humanities and philosophy, is ideally placed to do this”
Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web

She told the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme: “I knew Steve had made several contributions to other educational and cultural institutions and that we wanted a new home for the humanities, so I pitched it to him and was delighted he was interested.”

Pushed on the provenance of the money, coming as it does from a Trump supporter, she said: “We are a university, we delight in difference, and in people having different political perspectives. And if we want to compete globally, we will have to engage more with philanthropy.”

Schwarzman added, in the statement: “I’m proud to partner with Oxford to establish the Schwarzman Centre, which will unite Oxford’s humanities faculties for the first time, and include a new Institute for Ethics in AI to explore crucial questions affecting the workplace and society.” 

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, co-founder with Shadbolt of the ODI, and a professor of computer science at the university, said: “It is essential that philosophy and ethics engages with those disciplines developing and using AI. If AI is to benefit humanity, we must understand its moral and ethical implications. Oxford, with its rich history in humanities and philosophy, is ideally placed to do this.”

And the author Philip Pullman, who lives in the city, said: “This is one of the most exciting ideas for a long time. Oxford, which abounds in talent of all kinds, deserves a proper centre for the study and celebration of the humanities. This is a time when technology is making new media, new forms of communication, new ways of thinking available to a much wider range of students and citizens than ever before.”

The colleges that comprise the university have their own endowments, and some of those put the central university, the recipient of this particular donation, into the shade. St John’s College is the wealthiest, with an endowment of £632m.

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