American billionaire gives Oxford University £150m for AI ethics centre

An American billionaire has given Oxford University £150 million, one of the largest donations in its history, for a new institute that will explore the ethics of artificial intelligence.

The gift has been made by Stephen A Schwarzman, the chief executive and co-founder of US investment and private equity firm Blackstone.

A centre named after the philanthropist will house all of the university’s humanities subjects for the first time and is expected to open in 2024.

It will also be home to Oxford University’s new Institute for Ethics in AI which will explore the questions affecting the workplace and society.

Mr Schwarzman, who is not an Oxford graduate, said he is “proud” to partner with the university to create the centre, which will also include performing arts and exhibition venues.

He told the BBC’s Today programme: “AI is going to be the fourth revolution, and it is going to impact jobs, excellence, efficiency and it is a force for amazing good and also a potential force for not good.

“And what is important about it isn’t just what it can do, but making sure it is introduced in a way unlike the internet.

“The internet was invented by a bunch of computer scientists and they threw it out there because they thought it was cool.

“And parts of it were cool – interconnectedness, globally the ability to communicate, it is pretty amazing. What they forgot were all the negatives, this inability to control cyber bullying, lack of freedom of speech – all kinds of negative things.”

He said that ethics and AI is “one of the major issues of our age”, adding: “Because AI is going to come, it is really unstoppable, it is not just AI it is robotics and all kinds of other computer science innovations.”

The university said the 72-year-old’s multimillion-pound donation marks its largest single gift since the Renaissance.

University of Oxford donation
University of Oxford donation

In October last year he announced a foundational 350 million dollar (£279 million) gift to establish the Schwarzman College of Computing at MIT in the US, and in 2007 he also donated 100 million dollars (£79 million) to the New York Public Library, whose board he serves.

Oxford’s vice chancellor, Louise Richardson, said the generous donation to the university “marks a significant endorsement of the value of the humanities in the 21st century”.

Mr Schwarzman, who did not endorse Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign, now advises the American president.

Asked about his connections with President Trump and those who may be uncomfortable with taking his money, Ms Richardson told the Today programme: “I’d imagine there would be very few people who feel that way.

“Do you really think we should turn down the biggest gift in modern times, which will enable hundreds of academics, thousands of students to do cutting-edge work in the humanities? By which I mean history, literature, the arts. All the things that give joy and meaning to our lives.”

She said universities are “all about” engaging with those who hold different points of views or politics, adding that the gift will be “transformative for many generations”.