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Fueling Research Or Another Publicity Stunt? The Truth Behind Zuckerberg-Funded AI Institute

Zuckerberg and Chan have committed $500 million over the next 15 years towards the Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence.
Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence

Harvard University recently launched a new AI institute funded by American philanthropist Priscilla Chan and her husband and Meta founder, Mark Zuckerberg. The Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence stands between the intersection of neuroscience and artificial intelligence (AI). The institute will be focusing on AI and artificial neural networks research, developing theories to understand how AI learns and functions. 

Zuckerberg and Chan have committed $500 million over the next 15 years towards the institute, which is scheduled to open at the Science and Engineering Complex in Allston by the end of 2022. The institute is named after Facebook founder Zuckerberg’s mother and his grandparents – Karen Kempner Zuckerberg, Sidney Kempner and Gertrude Kempner, respectively. 

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Does Meta actually want to accelerate AI research by funding the new AI institute, or is it just another publicity stunt by the company to camouflage its recent controversies

What’s in store? 

With the monetary gift from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence plans to support ten new faculty members from the underrepresented STEM fields, a new computing infrastructure and lab resources. It will be headed by Bernardo Sabtini— the Alice and Rodman W Moorhead III Professor of Neurobiology at the Harvard Medical School, and Sham Kakade— Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, appointed to become the Professor of Computer Science and Statistics, starting January.

The AI institute hopes to bring together approaches and expertise in cognitive sciences, neuroscience and biology with computer science, engineering, applied mathematics, machine learning and statistics. Thus, it aims to give rise to a new generation of leaders versed in both subjects. The main purpose behind initiating this institution is to understand how the human brain works, in order to accelerate and improve the addressing and management of diseases, creation of new therapies, and understand the human body better.

The institute will be supporting the training of students– undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral fellows and researchers. Research topics are said to cover the lengths and breadths of perception and sensation, brain functioning and meta-plasticity. 

Another big tech influence?

In the last couple of years, big techs have been pouring in resources backing and establishing AI centres. Last year, Columbia University launched an AI research centre backed by Amazon. According to sources in the university, Amazon has committed a $5 million investment in the institute in the following five years, focusing on responsible AI. On the other hand, Google has invested $250 million into the academic community between 2005 and last year. Furthermore, Samsung invested $1.5 billion into research institutes in Korea. 

However, tech giants’ interests and investments in academia are extremely controversial. With big tech like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and of course, at the forefront of it all, Meta (earlier Facebook) holding so much control over public data, it has been but raising eyebrows. Experts believe that future leaders graduating from these tech-funded educational institutions will eventually research and develop biased solutions, catering to these conglomerates. 

Recently, computer scientist Timnit Gebru launched Distributed Artificial Intelligence Research Institute — an AI institution to take on the Big Tech influence in the field of AI research and development. This comes almost a year after the ethical AI practitioner was fired from Google

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative was founded in 2015 to cater to ‘social challenges’ through philanthropy and scientific research. In fact, Chan and Zuckerberg have committed to donating 99 per cent of Facebook’s equity for the betterment of the research study. Earlier, in 2017, the initiative donated $12.1 million at Harvard for public service initiatives and later another $30 million in 2018 to its Graduate School of Education. On paper, this might seem noble. However, if history is to be believed, the Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence seems like another attempt by the ever-controversial Meta to influence research and control the future of AI and technology at large. 

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Debolina Biswas
After diving deep into the Indian startup ecosystem, Debolina is now a Technology Journalist. When not writing, she is found reading or playing with paint brushes and palette knives. She can be reached at debolina.biswas@analyticsindiamag.com

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