John T
Professor John Tasioulas speaking last year at a conference in Lucerne

Lorenz Pachmann

Inaugural director and academic team appointed to new Institute for Ethics in AI

A team of seven philosophers has been appointed as the first academic team for Oxford University’s Institute for Ethics in AI.

Professor John Tasioulas will become the inaugural Director of the Institute in October, joining from King’s College London where he is Director of the Yeoh Tiong Lay Centre for Politics, Philosophy and Law. He explains more about his vision for the Institute in a Q&A here.

The Institute was announced last June as part of a £150m gift from Stephen A. Schwarzman, who is Chairman, CEO and Co-founder of Blackstone, one of the world’s leading investment firms. It will be part of the Philosophy Faculty and based in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities.

The Institute aims to tackle major ethical challenges posed by AI, from face recognition to voter profiling, brain machine interfaces to weaponised drones, and the ongoing discourse about how AI will impact employment on a global scale. The Schwarzman Centre will house Oxford's Humanities disciplines together for the first time in the University’s history, and the Institute will benefit from collaboration with these disciplines.

The team will initially comprise:

  • The Director, Professor John Tasioulas, who will join as Director from King’s College London, where he is the inaugural Chair of Politics, Philosophy and Law and Director of the Yeoh Tiong Lay Centre for Politics, Philosophy & Law. He previously taught Moral and Legal Philosophy at Oxford for 12 years, has held visiting posts at Chicago, Harvard, and Melbourne, and has acted as a consultant on human rights for the World Bank.
  • An Associate Professor in Philosophy, Dr Carissa Véliz, who was previously Research Fellow at Oxford's Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities. She will become a Tutorial fellow at Hertford College.
  • An Associate Professor in Philosophy, Dr Milo Phillips-Brown, who will join from MIT where he is a Distinguished Fellow in Ethics and Technology. He is also Senior Research Fellow in Digital Ethics and Governance at the Jain Family Institute. He will become a Tutorial Fellow at Jesus College.
  • Two Postdoctoral Research Fellows, Dr Carina Prunkl and Dr Ted Lechterman, who will join as postdoctoral research fellows, from Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute and the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, respectively.
  • Two doctoral students, who will start their programme in the coming academic year.

Professor Tasioulas said: 'AI will continue to have transformative effects on many parts of life, from medicine to law to how we do democracy. I do not want AI ethics to be seen as a narrow specialism, but to become something that anyone seriously concerned with the major challenges confronting humanity has to address. AI ethics is not an optional extra or a luxury, it is absolutely necessary if AI is to advance human flourishing.

'My aim is for the Institute to bring the highest standards of academic rigour to the discussion of AI ethics. The Institute is strongly embedded in philosophy while also drawing on other disciplines like literature, medicine, history, music, law, and computer science. This is a radical attempt to bridge the divide between science and humanities in this area and Oxford is uniquely placed to pull it off.

'AI is here to stay, so we must raise the level of debate around AI ethics and feed into the wider democratic process among citizens and legislators. AI regulation and policy are ultimately matters for democratic decision-making, but the quality of the deliberative process is enhanced by the arguments and insights of experts working on questions of AI ethics.'

Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt, who chairs the Institute’s Steering Group and led the original proposal, said: 'I am thrilled to welcome, as Institute faculty, this formidable group of academics. Our vision is for an Institute capable of laying the foundations for AI ethics so as to help guide and inform our use of this extraordinary technology. This great team and their research will help ensure that the technology augments rather diminishes the human experience.'

Professor Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, said: 'This is an important milestone for the University as this excellent leadership team will accelerate our efforts to unite humanists and scientists in addressing critical global challenges.'

Professor Karen O’Brien, Head of Humanities at Oxford University, said: 'We are delighted to have appointed an inaugural Director of the Institute of the calibre of John Tasioulas. John is an outstanding moral and legal philosopher and we were very impressed with his vision for the development of the Institute and the field of AI ethics as a whole. He has valuable and relevant experience of building up a successful research centre at King’s College London.

'Almost overnight, the Institute for Ethics in AI has become a leading research centre in this important emerging field of AI ethics. With a core academic team of seven outstanding researchers, the Institute can produce new research and put on more events which bring together academic experts, leaders in technology and government, and the wider public.'

Commenting on the appointment, Stephen A. Schwarzman added: 'AI has the potential to be a force for good, but also carries immense risk if it is not applied ethically and responsibly. Oxford is uniquely positioned to explore these considerations, much as it has helped address the most pressing ethical questions facing society over the past millennium. I look forward to seeing John and the Institute’s contributions.'

The Institute will apply AI ethics to challenges like the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this year, Professor Michael Parker of the Institute’s Steering Group advised the UK government on the ethics underpinning the development of its contact tracing app. He is a member of the government's Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) and co-authored research on how technology can slow the virus’ rate of transmission.

Professor Tasioulas said the pandemic has shown exactly why philosophy must play a key role in democratic decision-making: 'COVID-19 demonstrates that it is never going to be enough just to ‘follow the science’. There are always value judgements that have to be made, about things like the distribution of risk across society and trade-offs between prosperity and health.

'Science can tell us the consequences of our actions but it does not tell us which goals we should pursue or what sacrifices are justified to achieve them. In so far as we are going to have AI as part of the technological solution to societal challenges, we inevitably have to address the ethical questions too. AI ethics is a way to get clearer about the value judgements involved and to encourage a more rigorous and inclusive debate.'

One of the first pieces of work to come out of the Institute will be a book by Dr Carissa Véliz, a new Associate Professor in Philosophy at the Institute, to be published by Transworld (Penguin) on 24 September. ‘Privacy Is Power’ will explore the importance of privacy for democracy and freedom.

Dr Véliz said: 'Our aim as an Institute is to produce extremely rigorous research that is completely independent from the pressures of Big Tech, and to contribute to making sure that AI is only built and implemented in ways that are in accord with the highest ethical standards.'