We hugely enjoyed welcoming Mohamed Abdalla from the University of Toronto for our first talk of Lent, titled ‘AI Ethics: Big tech and its influence on academic research’. Mohamed discussed Big Tech’s close association with academia and drew comparisons with Big Tobacco’s past relationship with medical research. All of this came at a time of unease in the community, highlighted by Timnit Gebru’s disputed resignation from Google, and issues popularised by the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. It was a hugely informative talk!

Event poster.

With the increasing adoption of automated algorithms in every part of our lives, greater attention has been dedicated to studying the societal effects of these algorithms. The first portion of the talk will highlight concepts covered in the machine learning fairness literature. The rest of the talk will explore how Big Tech can actively distort the ongoing “Ethics of AI” academic landscape to suit its needs. By comparing the well-studied actions of another industry, that of Big Tobacco, to the current actions of Big Tech we see similar strategies employed by both industries to sway and influence academic and public discourse. We argue that it is vital, particularly for universities and other institutions of higher learning, to discuss the appropriateness and the tradeoffs of accepting funding from Big Tech, and what limitations or conditions should be put in place.

Mohamed Abdalla is a PhD student in the Natural Language Processing Group (Department of Computer Science) at the University of Toronto and a Vanier scholar, advised by Professor Frank Rudzicz and Professor Graeme Hirst. He holds affiliations with: i) Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence, ii) Centre for Ethics, iii) ICES (formerly known as the Institute for Clinical and Evaluative Sciences).