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Dissidence: At Kempner, Zuckerberg buys Harvard and destroys humanity | Opinion

Meet the Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence: Harvard’s newest and most successful academic initiative, the result of a $500 million gift from Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan in 2007, every AI researcher’s wildest dream – and, in our view, a damning misstep by our institution.

Given our board’s broad support for both the Kempner Institute and the gift that created it, we editorial chairs find ourselves in the unusual position of having to be dissenters.

Let us precede this dissent by acknowledging the immense potential social benefits of AI technology, lest our position be reduced to that of luddites or fearmongers. We are not blind to the writing on the wall. Few other fields are likely to have such a substantial impact on our lives or shape our realities as much as AI in the years to come. There are many reasons to believe that its role will often be of a positive nature, facilitating improved cancer screening techniques, helping us to better predict and prepare for natural disasters, and massively increasing productivity. Our robotic overlords — self-driving algorithms? weird art makers? – might come in handy.

Why, then, oppose an institute that can help stimulate research in an area that we recognize as of urgent importance? Why taunt Roko’s Basilisk in such a stupid public way?

Our opposition to the Kempner Institute does not relate exclusively, or even primarily, to its object of study. In fact, our first objection to Harvard’s new AI lab is far more mundane and boring than the ultra-futuristic fantasy worlds conjured up by AI enthusiasts. It’s the economy, stupid — the economics of university funding, that is.

Our institution—our entire elite higher education system, no doubt—has a penchant for auctioning off academic priorities to the highest bidder. We hate that a single individual, if sufficiently endowed with capital, can exert such a hold on the research path of our University. Zuckerberg and Chan are not alone. Penny S. Pritzker ’81 wakes up particularly generous and the economics department gets a $100 million boom and a new departmental setup; a private equity couple are apparently so disgusted by rising sea levels that the $200 million Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability is materializing out of thin air. The whim of the philanthropist is the mandate of the scholar.

The problematic dynamic thread running through these donations isn’t that research gets funded (we really appreciate that) or even that we have to put up with the pseudo-modest naming tendencies of the rich (Zuckerberg chose the parental route, following the path of the Chan brothers). Rather, it is the fact that a variety of colossally influential funding decisions depend almost entirely on the whims of the few, regardless of the needs of the many.

Other academic departments — or “clusters,” if you like — could use Pritzker’s gift far more than Harvard’s most popular and important area. Some areas of research, such as climate change resilience, have been underfunded for decades and remain underfunded if they fail to attract donor interest. While our academic loyalties rest with Veritas, our resource allocation — the kind of decisions that determine whether students get a new facility or if faculty members in less prestigious departments have a path to tenure — are often more tied to projects. favorites of our funders.

The University, we are sure, would protest loudly. Trustees since President Derek C. Bok have argued that we must respond to donor desires in order to attract donations and increase intrinsically valuable research. The “social good” stemming from academia has been the University’s favorite excuse for the glaring link between donor preferences and purple-tinged capital flows. Yet we find it hard to believe that any attempt to maximize the usefulness of education on a broader social level would begin by funneling an extra hundred million to the richest university in the world. Rather, the system widens the gap between our institution and those – community colleges, public universities, HBCUs – less likely to attract as many charitable hoarders. While we understand the reluctance to withhold multi-million dollar contributions, we find other funding systems – including those with stricter policies of non-earmarking of colossal donations, as well as those that extract and redistribute donations involuntary from ten-digit figures – infinitely more appetizing.

This donor-centric funding model, encouraged by Bok and his successors, will almost certainly have consequences in the case of Zuckerberg’s AI effort.

The development of technology based on research conducted at Kempner is likely to greatly benefit Zuckerberg, who has described AI as the “key to unlocking the metaverse” and has continuously invested in AI systems over the past of the last 10 years. And given Harvard’s history of attributing great pedagogical influence to its donors – take, for example, the title of Visiting Scholar, the private campus office, and the direct link to faculty in the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics that were provided to billionaire sex offender Jeffrey Epstein – it seems likely that research at Kempner will align with, or even contribute directly to, corporate Meta goals.

One doesn’t need a PhD in tech ethics (fortunately, given the slim chance of a millionaire helping fund it) to understand why this latest achievement should be cause for concern; it is enough to have been alive and awake for the past decade. Despite Meta’s stated mission of “Giv[ing] people the power to build community and bring the world together,” the lasting legacy of Zuckerberg’s brainchild in the 21st century will be at least in part the destruction of American democracy – an almost literal transcription of a comment made by the former United States Chief Technology Officer – through widespread, unchecked, algorithmically promoted disinformation that inflamed partisan divisions ahead of the 2016 presidential election and fueled an insurgency in US Capitol in January 2021, while lining Zuckerberg’s pockets.

Beyond dealing potentially lethal blows to a centuries-old institution, the profit model and corporate callousness embedded in the tech giant’s operations – captured in Zuckerberg’s now infamous motto “forward fast and smash things” – also proved the potential to be literally deadly. Perhaps the most stark example of this is the platform’s well-documented role in the 2016-2017 genocide of the Rohingya ethnic minority in Myanmar, for which Meta (which, conveniently enough, changed its name from Facebook in 2021 as he faced a new backlash for spreading disinformation and hate speech during the crisis) was subpoenaed in the ongoing genocide case against Myanmar before the International Court of Justice, in more than being the subject of a class action lawsuit brought by a group of Rohingya refugees. Worse still, a cache of internal documents revealed last year by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen suggests that Facebook executives knew about the disastrous effects of their creation from the start — and did next to nothing.

To put it simply: we have reason to be skeptical of Zuckerberg as a good steward of ethical AI research and the funding system that allows him to present himself as such under the legitimizing brand of Harvard. It is further concerning that of the $500 million donated to launch Kempner, not a single penny appears to have been donated to research into the ethics of AI, a field that is both severely underfunded and unlikely. to find champions in the non-academic field of profit maximization. technology companies.

The overall result – a million dollar funding that reflects the interests of the donor, little ethical scrutiny on a research hotspot for a nefarious field plagued by ethical dilemmas, and an enthusiastic response from a student community that should really getting to know the relevant players better now – is hardly something to celebrate. An accomplishment of a dystopian “Zuckerbergitas”, perhaps, at the expense of Harvard’s highest ideals.

Guillermo S. Hava ’23-’24, Crimson Professor of Writing, is a joint Concentrator of Government and Philosophy at Winthrop House. Eleanor V. Wikstrom ’24, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is a social studies hub at Adams House.

Dissenting Opinions: Sometimes the Crimson Editorial Board is divided on the opinion we express in a staff editorial. In these cases, dissenting board members have the opportunity to voice their opposition to the staff opinion.

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