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LinkedIn’s and eBay’s founders are donating $20 million to protect us from artificial intelligence

Pierre Omidyar, chairman and founder of eBay Inc.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Pierre Omidyar, chairman and founder of eBay Inc.

Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, and the Omidyar Network, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar's nonprofit, have each committed $10 million to fund academic research and development aimed at keeping artificial intelligence systems ethical and preventing building AI that may harm society.

The fund received an additional $5 million from the Knight Foundation and two other $1 million donations from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Jim Pallotta, founder of the Raptor Group. The $27 million reserve is being anchored by MIT's Media Lab and Harvard's Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society.

The Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Fund, the name of the fund, expects to grow as new funders continue to come on board.

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While AI has obvious benefits — it can be used to scan through troves of data to detect cancer and automate driving to reduce fatalities — a lot of very smart people, including the White House and Elon Musk's nonprofit Open AI, have warned how artificially intelligent systems can go awry.

AI systems work by analyzing massive amounts of data, which is first profiled and categorized by humans, with all their prejudices and biases in tow.

Reid Hoffman, chairman and co-founder of LinkedIn Corp.
Noah Berger | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Reid Hoffman, chairman and co-founder of LinkedIn Corp.

"One of the most critical challenges is how do we make sure that the machines we 'train' don't perpetuate and amplify the same human biases that plague society," said Joi Ito, director of MIT's Media Lab, in a statement.

The money will pay for research to investigate how socially responsible artificially intelligent systems can be designed to, say, keep computer programs that are used to make decisions in fields like education, transportation and criminal justice accountable and fair. The group also hopes to explore ways to talk with the public about and foster understanding of the complexities of artificial intelligence.

The two universities will form a governing body along with Hoffman and the Omidyar Network to distribute the funds.

The $20 million from Hoffman and the Omidyar Network are being given as a philanthropic grant — not an investment vehicle.

By April Glaser, Recode.net.

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