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K&L Gates Gives $10M to Study AI and Ethics

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on November 03, 2016 3:57 PM

Wonder if our AI future will look like Westworld or Blade Runner? If we'll need to start creating social security programs for retired robots? If we'll still have social safety nets after smart machines replace human workers? K&L Gates, the massive BigLaw firm, is wondering about the implications of AI, too. And it's donating $10 million to create a research center focused on the ethics of artificial intelligence.

The donation will launch the K&L Gates Endowment for Ethics and Computational Technologies at Carnegie Mellon University, the New York Times Reports, supporting a new center at the university where researchers and academics will tackle questions about the ethical implications of emerging AI technologies.

AI and Academia

K&L Gates (yes, that's Gates as in Bill Gates, but Bill Gates Sr., the Microsoft billionaire's father) is looking to study the potential impact of AI on the economy and culture, according to the Times. Carnegie Mellon is a good home for the endowment since it "resides at the intersection of many disciplines," the firm's chairman, Peter J. Kalis, said. "It will take a synthesis of the best thinking of all of these disciplines for society to define the ethical constraints on the emerging A.I. technologies."

"We are at a unique point in time where the technology is far ahead of society's ability to restrain it," CMU President Subra Suresh said.

The new endowment and center come at a time when AI is gaining more and more attention, not just for its practical uses, but for its ethical, social, and legal implications. Last month, the Obama administration issued a report on the future of AI, for example. In September, major tech companies including Amazon, IBM, and Google, joined to create the "Partnership on AI to Benefit People and Society." And this summer, the European Union's Committee on Legal Affairs released a draft report calling for more consideration of the legal rights of robots and their potential civil liabilities.

CMU Back at the Forefront of AI

The donation also helps bring CMU back toward the forefront of AI research. Last year, as the Times notes, 40 faculty members jumped ship in order to work for Uber. Uber is currently testing self-driving cars on Carnegie Mellon's own turf, Pittsburgh. Those spots have since been filled and the new center will allow even more AI researchers to work at the school.

For all the hype about AI, though, President Suresh had some notes of caution.

While there's reason to be excited about AI, he said, don't get too optimistic. Suresh, for example, didn't think self-driving cars like Uber's would take off within the next few years. CMU and K&L Gates' new partnership, however, starts right now.

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