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Who Feeds The Watch Dog?

Academic AI researchers receive quite extensive financial support from big tech, according to several articles and studies. 58% of faculty at four prominent universities have received grants, fellowship, or other financial support from Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Nividia, Intel, IBM, Huawei, Samsung, Uber, Alibaba, Element AI or OpenAI according to Wired. Given that academic findings influence the public opinion and guide our law makers’ regulatory work, any potential risk preventing independent and free research is naturally worth paying attention to.

What are big tech’s motivation and outcome of these transactions? And even more important, does this private-interest funding practice bias the research activities? The concerns cover both the outline and prioritisation of research questions and the actual findings.

A 10 page comparison study by Abdalla & Abdalla discusses similarities between the ongoing big techs’ funding activities and the way big tobacco companies in the fifties attempted to delay and prevent government regulation by raising ambiguity and confusion.

Besides funding of individual research projects, big tech funds several institutions to “ensure the ethical development of AI” and to focus on “responsible development”. On motivation Abdalla & Abdalla investigate funding of academic research as a tool and they identify four main goals that drives investment into academic research:

  1. To reinvent the public image as socially responsible;
  2. To influence events and decisions made by the universities;
  3. To influence the specific research questions and plans of individual scientists;
  4. To find receptive academics who can be leveraged.

They explore to which extent big tech is involved in and sometimes even leading the on-going discussions regarding the ethics of AI in academic settings. In general, they trust that most research is done by well-intended skilled scientists. But good intentions are insufficient to mitigate the potential impact of financial dependencies and unconscious bias.

There is “cause for concern regarding the integrity of current research, and that academia must take steps to ensure the integrity and impartiality of future research.”

And “The conflict of interest in academia caused by external private funding is a systemic issue which exists at the societal level, and therefore we think that effective solutions will have to come from policy (either governmental or institutional)”  While we await for sufficient regulation we should at least require every researcher post their complete funding information online.

Google is also a big sponsor of conferences, think tanks and government lobby activitites according to the American Prospect. “The search engine giant has been building a network of defenders for years, through free spending in Washington and cultivating relationships in government. Google uses third-party validators as a form of shadow lobbying, and has already run this play to fend off attacks on its practices,” it states.

More on this topic:

The challenges of combining big tech consultancy work with the role as scientist expert is discussed in this article from Prospect: