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Meet the Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence: Harvard's newest, flashiest academic initiative, the brainchild of a $500 million donation by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan ’07, any 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 donation that created it, we, the Editorial Chairs, find ourselves in the unusual position of having to dissent.
Let us preface this dissent by acknowledging the immense potential social benefits of artificial intelligence 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 as substantial an impact on our lives or to shape our realities quite as much as AI in the coming years. There’s plenty of reason to believe its role will frequently be positive in character, facilitating improved cancer screening techniques, helping us better predict and prepare for natural disasters, and massively boosting productivity. Our robotic overlords — autonomous driving algorithms? weird art creators? — might just prove helpful.
Why, then, oppose an institute that is likely to help spur research into a field we recognize as pressingly important? Why taunt Roko’s Basilisk in such a foolishly public way?
Our opposition to the Kempner Institute isn’t exclusively, or even primarily, concerned with its subject of study. In fact, our first objection to Harvard’s new AI lab is much more mundane and boring than the ultra-futuristic worlds of fancy 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, arguably — has a penchant for auctioning off academic priorities to the highest bidder. We detest that a single individual, if sufficiently endowed with capital, can hold such sway on our University’s research path. Zuckerberg and Chan are hardly alone. Penny S. Pritzker ’81 wakes up feeling particularly generous and the Economics department gets a $100 million boom and a new departmental facility; a private equity couple is seemingly so bummed by rising sea levels that the $200 million Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability materializes out of thin air. The philanthropist’s whim is the academic’s mandate.
The problematic dynamic threading through these donations isn’t that research is getting funded (we genuinely appreciate that) or even that we have to put up with the wealthy’s pseudo-modest naming tendencies (Zuckerberg chose the parental route, following the path of the Chan brothers). Rather, it’s the fact that a variety of colossally influential funding decisions are almost entirely contingent on the whims of the few, regardless of the needs of the many.
Other academic departments — or “clusters”, if you wish — could use Pritzker’s donation much more than Harvard’s most popular, prominent field. Some research areas, like climate change resiliency, have been underfunded for decades, and remain underfunded if they fail to pique donors’ interest. If our academic loyalties lie with Veritas, our allocation of resources — the sort of decisions that shape whether students get a new facility or faculty members in less glamorous departments have a path to tenure — is frequently more tethered to our funders’ pet projects.
The University, we are sure, would loudly protest. Administrators since President Derek C. Bok have argued that we must accommodate donors’ desires so as to entice donations and increase inherently valuable research. “Social good” stemming from academia has been the University’s favorite apology for the blatant link between donor preferences and crimson-tinted capital flows. Yet we struggle to believe that any attempt to maximize educational utility at the broad social level would start by funneling an extra hundred million to the world’s wealthiest University. If anything, the system broadens the gap between our institution and those — community colleges, public universities, HBCUs — less likely to attract as many charitable wealth hoarders. While we understand the reticence to turn down any multi-million dollar contributions, we find other funding systems — including ones with stricter no-earmarking policies for colossal gifts, as well as those that extract and redistribute involuntary donations from ten-figure figures — infinitely more palatable.
This donor-centric model of financing, fostered by Bok and his successors, will almost certainly come with consequences in the case of Zuckerberg’s AI endeavor.
The development of technology based on research conducted at Kempner is likely to benefit Zuckerberg, who has described AI as the “key to unlocking the Metaverse” and invested continuously in AI systems over the past 10 years, tremendously. And given Harvard’s history of allocating a great deal of pedagogical influence to its donors — take, for example, the Visiting Fellow title, private campus office, and direct connection to faculty in the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics that were provided to the billionaire sex offender Jeffrey Epstein — it seems probable that research conducted at Kempner will align with, if not directly contribute to, Meta’s corporate goals.
One doesn't need a PhD in tech ethics (luckily, given the low odds that some millionaire would help fund it) to understand why this latter realization should be a cause for concern; one needs just 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 closer together,” the lasting legacy of Zuckerberg’s brainchild on the 21st century will at least partly be the destruction of American democracy — a near-literal transcription of a comment made by the former chief technology officer of the U.S. — through rampant, unchecked, and algorithmically-promoted misinformation which inflamed partisan divides in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election and fostered an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January 2021, all while lining Zuckerberg’s pockets.
Beyond landing potentially fatal blows to a centuries-old institution, the profit model and corporate callousness embedded within the tech giant’s operations — captured in Zuckerberg’s now-infamous motto of “move fast and break things” — have also proven the potential to be literally deadly. Perhaps the most salient 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 it faced renewed backlash for spreading misinformation and hate speech during the crisis) was subpoenaed in the ongoing genocide case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice, in addition to finding itself the subject of a class-action lawsuit brought forth by a group of Rohingya refugees. Worse still, a cache of internal documents revealed last year by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen suggests that Facebook leaders knew of the disastrous effects of their creation all along — and did basically nothing.
To put it simply: We have reason to be skeptical of Zuckerberg as a good steward of ethical AI research, and of the funding system that empowers him to pose as one under the legitimizing Harvard brand. It’s further concerning that out of the $500 million donated to launch Kempner, not a single penny seems to have been donated to AI ethics research, a field that is both heavily underfunded and unlikely to find champions in the non-academic realm of profit-maximizing tech corporations.
The overall outcome — million-dollar funding that mirrors the donor’s interests, little ethical scrutiny on a hotspot of research for a field infamously ridden by ethical dilemmas, and an enthusiastic response from a student community that really should know the pertinent players better by now — is hardly something to celebrate. A fulfillment of a dystopic “Zuckerbergitas,” maybe, at the expense of Harvard’s loftiest ideals.
Guillermo S. Hava ’23-’24, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is a joint Government and Philosophy concentrator in Winthrop House. Eleanor V. Wikstrom ’24, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is a Social Studies concentrator in Adams House.
Dissenting Opinions: Occasionally, The Crimson Editorial Board is divided about the opinion we express in a staff editorial. In these cases, dissenting board members have the opportunity to express their opposition to staff opinion.
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