Omidyar, Hoffman create $27M research fund for AI in the public interest

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eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman are among the backers of a new $27 million fund, announced today, that’s aiming to promote research into artificial intelligence in the public interest.

Concern about the societal impact of AI is rising up political agendas as it becomes clearer how much power autonomous technologies have to shape behavior and outcomes at scale. Witness, for example, the furore around Facebook and algorithmically promoted fake news in the wake of the US presidential election result.

Last month the IEEE technical professional association put out a first draft guide aiming to foster the development of ethically designed AI systems. The political establishment has also been paying more attention to the implications of rising use of autonomous systems. Last year the White House put out reports into AI and R&D. And a U.K. parliamentary committee warned of the need to act pro-actively to ensure AI accountability.

The new fund is being called the Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Fund, and will aim to support a “cross-section of AI ethics and governance projects and activities”, both in the US and internationally.

Hoffman and Omidyar, via his philanthropic investment fund, have each put in $10M. They’re joined by the journalist and arts-focused Knight Foundation, which contributed $5M. Other backers at this point are the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and Jim Pallotta, founder of the Raptor Group, who have each committed $1M — though the aim is to grow the size of the fund further, as other funders join.

In a press release, the group flags how algorithms are increasingly making a range of key decisions that impact society, from the visibility of news stories to loan approvals or the types of jobs individuals perform.

In another illustrative recent example of the tussle between tech companies seeking to accelerate the deployment of autonomous technologies and regulators tasked with ensuring public safety, Uber’s self driving cars were forced off the road in California last month — after the company initially flouted an order to terminate a pilot of the tech, after claiming it did not need a permit to operate them. The California Attorney General thought otherwise.

“Because of this pervasive but often concealed impact, it is imperative that AI research and development be shaped by a broad range of voices — not only by engineers and corporations, but also by social scientists, ethicists, philosophers, faith leaders, economists, lawyers and policymakers,” the group writes.

Activities the fund states it will support include:

  • a joint AI fellowship program supporting people who are working to keep human issues at the forefront of AI, including working with international efforts that are underway;
  • convening and supporting a network of people and institutions working to maximize the benefits of AI;
  • funding expert research and other sectors affected by AI’s implications;
  • a thematic focus on the issues of artificial intelligence for the 2018 “Assembly” program

Specific issues the fund might also address are further detailed as:

  • Communicating complexity: How do we best communicate, through words and processes, the nuances of a complex field like AI?
  • Ethical design: How do we build and design technologies that consider ethical frameworks and moral values as central features of technological innovation?
  • Advancing accountable and fair AI: What kinds of controls do we need to minimize AI’s potential harm to society and maximize its benefits?
  • Innovation in the public interest: How do we maintain the ability of engineers and entrepreneurs to innovate, create and profit, while ensuring that society is informed and that the work integrates public interest perspectives?
  • Expanding the table: How do we grow the field to ensure that a range of constituencies are involved with building the tools and analyzing social impact?

In a section of its FAQ about the type of projects the initiative will support, the group adds:

We expect the first year of the fund to be experimental and iterative, supporting a variety of collaborative projects that explore the societal challenges of AI through unique interdisciplinary activities. For example, the initiative will support an inaugural class of joint AI Fellows across the Berkman Klein Center and the MIT Media Lab, an AI-themed version of the “Assembly” program, this summer’s AI Now public event, and a variety of other spaces that convene and enable innovative collaborations across a diverse and impactful network of people and institutions who are working to steer AI in a way that maximizes the benefits to society.

Commenting on the launch in a statement, Omidyar said: “As a technologist, I’m impressed by the incredible speed at which artificial intelligence technologies are developing. As a philanthropist and humanitarian, I’m eager to ensure that ethical considerations and the human impacts of these technologies are not overlooked. Omidyar Network is participating in the fund to ensure that critical areas like ethics, accountability, and governance, are considered from the earliest stages of design.”

Hoffman added: “There’s an urgency to ensure that AI benefits society and minimizes harm. AI decision-making can influence many aspects of our world — education, transportation, health care, criminal justice, and the economy — yet data and code behind those decisions can be largely invisible.”

The MIT Media Lab and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University will serve as founding academic institutions for the new AI research fund initiative — meaning they will collaborate on research initiatives that could be funded. The aim is also for the fund to “complement and collaborate with” existing relevant efforts at the institutions, they say. Day-to-day administration of the fund will be handled by The Miami Foundation.

Update: John Bracken, the Knight Foundation’s VP for technology innovation, told TechCrunch the first awards will be made prior to the July 10 AI Now symposium it’s working on with MIT Labs, which addresses the near-term social and economic implications of AI.

He said it’s not yet known over what time period the fund will be invested, nor is there a set size for investments.

“We will know more about the direction and focus of the fund a year from now, as the field, and our understanding of it, evolves. However you can imagine that the Fund partners are interested in AI In relation to topics including civil society, the arts, engineering, the military and the future of work,” he added, noting that ensuring diversity in the portfolio has been “central to our early conversations”.