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Foundations seek to advance AI, ward off threats

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While technology experts sound the alarm on the pace of artificial-intelligence development, philanthropists — including long-established foundations and tech billionaires — have been responding with an uptick in grants.

Much of the philanthropy is focused on what is known as technology for good or “ethical AI,” which explores how to solve or mitigate the harmful effects of artificial-intelligence systems. Some scientists believe AI can be used to predict climate disasters and discover new drugs to save lives.

Eric E. Schmidt, co-founder of Schmidt Futures, listens Feb. 23, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington during a hearing on emerging technologies and their impact on national security.

Others are warning that the large language models could soon upend white-collar professions, fuel misinformation and threaten national security.

What philanthropy can do to influence the trajectory of AI is starting to emerge. Billionaires who earned their fortunes in technology are more likely to support projects and institutions that emphasize the positive outcomes of AI, while foundations not endowed with tech money tended to focus more on AI’s dangers.

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For example, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy, committed hundreds of millions of dollars to AI grantmaking programs housed at Schmidt Futures to “accelerate the next global scientific revolution.” In addition to committing $125 million to advance research into AI, last year the philanthropic venture announced a $148 million program to help postdoctoral fellows apply AI to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Also in the AI enthusiast camp is the Patrick McGovern Foundation, named after the late billionaire who founded the International Data Group and one of a few philanthropies that made AI and data science an explicit grantmaking priority. In 2021, the foundation committed $40 million to help nonprofits use artificial intelligence and data to advance “their work to protect the planet, foster economic prosperity, ensure healthy communities,” according to a news release. McGovern also has an internal team of AI experts who work to help nonprofits use the technology to improve their programs.

“I am an incredible optimist about how these tools are going to improve our capacity to deliver on human welfare,” said Vilas Dhar, president of Patrick J. McGovern Foundation. “What I think philanthropy needs to do, and civil society writ large, is to make sure we realize that promise and opportunity — to make sure these technologies don’t merely become one more profit-making sector of our economy but rather are invested in furthering human equity.”

Salesforce also is interested in helping nonprofits use AI. The software company announced last month that it will award $2 million to education, workforce and climate organizations “to advance the equitable and ethical use of trusted AI.”

Billionaire entrepreneur and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman is another big donor who believes AI can improve humanity and has funded research centers at Stanford University and the University of Toronto to achieve that goal. He is betting AI can positively transform areas like health care and education, he told the New York Times in May.

The enthusiasm for AI solutions among tech billionaires is not uniform, however.

EBay founder Pierre Omidyar has taken a mixed approach through his Omidyar Network, which is making grants to nonprofits using the technology for scientific innovation as well as those trying to protect data privacy and advocate for regulation.

Grantmakers that hold a more skeptical or negative perspective on AI are also not a uniform group; however, they tend to be foundations unaffiliated with the tech industry.

The Ford, MacArthur and Rockefeller foundations number among several grantmakers funding nonprofits examining the harmful effects of AI.

For example, computer scientists Timnit Gebru and Joy Buolamwini, who conducted pivotal research on racial and gender bias from facial-recognition tools — which persuaded Amazon, IBM and other companies to pull back on the technology in 2020 — received sizable grants from them and other big, established foundations.

Gebru launched the Distributed Artificial Intelligence Research Institute in 2021 to research AI’s harmful effects on marginalized groups “free from Big Tech’s pervasive influence.” The institute raised $3.7 million in initial funding from the MacArthur Foundation, Ford Foundation, Kapor Center, Open Society Foundations and the Rockefeller Foundation. The Ford, MacArthur, and Open Society foundations are financial supporters of the Chronicle.

Buolamwini is continuing research on and advocacy against artificial-intelligence and facial-recognition technology through her Algorithmic Justice League, which also received at least $1.9 million in support from the Ford, MacArthur and Rockefeller foundations as well as from the Alfred P. Sloan and Mozilla foundations.

The Ford Foundation also launched a Disability x Tech Fund through Borealis Philanthropy, which is supporting efforts to fight bias against people with disabilities in algorithms and artificial intelligence.

There are also AI skeptics among the tech elite awarding grants. Tesla CEO Elon Musk warned AI could result in “civilizational destruction.” In 2015, he gave $10 million to the Future of Life Institute, a nonprofit that aims to prevent “existential risk” from AI.

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