TINA YE/THE VARSITY

The University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information (iSchool) has received a $2.45 million donation from entrepreneur and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman. The donation, which is the largest that the faculty has ever received, establishes the Reid Hoffman Chair in Artificial Intelligence and the Human.

Brian Cantwell Smith, the faculty’s former Dean and Professor of Information, Philosophy, and Cognitive Science, has been appointed to the chair until August 2024.

Smith was one of Hoffman’s professors at Stanford University in 1989, and their connection played a role in the iSchool being chosen as the donation’s recipient. The pair had discussed “the question of what it will be for humanity, society, people to coexist with other forms of intelligence,” said Smith. “[Hoffman] then said, ‘Is there any way that I could help you support this kind of work?’ And he knew I was at U of T, so, he said, well, ‘Look, why don’t you write a proposal?’”

Smith’s successful proposal for the chair centred on conducting foundational research on “what artificial intelligence is, what it isn’t, how we should assess it, what consequences it will have, [and] how it affects our self.”

As chair, Smith will deliver an annual public lecture about these topics. However, with the increased “psychic space” that the chair allows, his primary aim is in publishing more books to better convey and address the complexities of his research. “I’m not a public intellectual in that sense. What I’d like to do is to provide analyses and understandings and ideas that could be resources for public intellectuals.”

Hoffman’s other recent donations include $10 million USD to the Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Fund, which funds research on ethical problems raised by artificial intelligence, and a joint $500,000 USD to establish Win the Future, a project aimed at countering the effects of Donald Trump’s presidency and fielding political candidates within the Democratic Party.

Smith considered those donations to be in line with a continuous effort to understand the world in a way that is “compassionate with substantial values of humanity.” He considered the other donations to be more public, akin to offices located on the first and second floors of buildings, whereas his work is akin to offices “in the basement” due to its foundational nature.

According to Smith, the donation is an example of funding “standpoints from which to ask deeper questions,” a change from the norm of artificial intelligence funding going toward mechanical physical structures and architecture.

Smith added that U of T is an ideal institution for research in artificial intelligence, having arisen “out of a constellation of a variety of institutions.”

The iSchool itself operates like a microcosm of this breadth, thanks in part to Smith’s time as the faculty’s Dean from 2003–2008. Smith hired staff from a variety of different disciplines, and incorporated the university’s Museum Studies into the faculty.

“One thing I hope this chair does is allow Toronto to be a place that can give voice to profound and deliberative reflection on a lot of issues of gravity having to do with artificial intelligence.”

iSchool Dean Wendy Duff was contacted about the establishment of the chair in May, and Hoffman’s donation was confirmed with approval from the Provost in early July. Proposals from senior iSchool staff for the chair were assessed by the faculty’s promotions committee through August.

According to university policy, the donation must support the chair for at least five years, “including salary and benefits and/or support of unrestricted research.”

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