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Oxford University given £150m by US billionaire to investigate AI in biggest ever donation

Jessica Carpani
Stephen A. Schwarzman has gifted Oxford University £150 million - REX

Oxford University has announced its biggest ever cash donation after a US billionaire gave the institution £150 million to investigate the ethics of artificial intelligence. 

The money, from philanthropist and businessman Stephen A. Schwarzman, will be used to create the Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities, which will for the first time ever see Oxford’s seven humanities disciplines housed together alongside exhibition and performances spaces. 

With a planned opening in 2024, the Schwarzman Centre will also house the new Institute for Ethics in AI, which will lead the study of the ethical implications of artificial intelligence and other new computing technologies.

The generous donation surpasses that of British businessman David Harding, who gifted £100 million to the University of Cambridge in February of this year. 

It is believed that Mr Schwarzman’s donation is the biggest cash gift in Oxford’s near 1,000-year history. It may be the largest ever donation to the university, but historians at the university are cautious about stating that emphatically because of the difficulty of valuing land from hundreds of years ago. They are confident it is the largest donation since the Renaissance, when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry Chichele, gifted land to establish All Soul’s College in 1438.  

Mr Schwarzman, 72, born in Pennsylvania, is Chairman, CEO and Co-Founder of Blackstone, one of the world’s leading investment firms with over $500 billion Assets Under Management. 

He was approached by Professor Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford 18 months ago when she pitched a more modest plan at his Blackstone office in New York. Mr Schwarzman, she told The Telegraph, said to her “I’m more interested in your ambitious plans.”

Mr Schwarzman had previously donated $350 million to MIT in October 2018, which established the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing with a similar aim of addressing the opportunities and challenges presented by the rise of AI. 

Speaking to the Telegraph, Mr Schwarzman, who served as chair of President Donald Trump's Strategic and Policy Forum, said: “What motivates me, among other things, is to have the core of humanities, the basic values of people, be considered in the context of  technological development. 

“Technology left unaffected would trample over certain aspects of human behaviour and human opportunities. 

“If we used the study of the Humanities to reaffirm western values and set up a new institute for artificial intelligence that values ethics, all of this together would be a very unique opportunity to help the world adjust to changing times.”

Stephen Schwarzman and his wife Christine arrive at the White House for a state dinner last year in Washington Credit: Aaron P. Bernstein 

He added that as a classical music fan he also looked forward to seeing how Oxford would roll out the arts parts of the programme, which would be open to the public with the aim of connecting a community he has loved since he was fifteen when he first visited the city. 

“I was quite unsophisticated as a 15-year-old. It was my first trip outside of the United States and I walked around Oxford and I’d never seen anything like that in my life. 

“I loved the physical buildings and the way everything was laid out. It made a huge impression on me,” he said.  

He added that his decision to gift £150 million was a “very logical and comfortable decision for me.” 

The newly-constructed building will be at the heart of the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter with facilities that include a 500-seat concert hall and a 250-seat auditorium. 

Professor Richardson said she “delighted” at the news as the gift was “an investment in the humanities, Oxford and higher education in Britain.” 

She added: “There has been an awful lot of attention recently in STEM so we delight in the focus on the Humanities and want to ensure they stay at the centre of technological development.” 

The Vice-Chancellor anticipates that the faculty will be able to give external advice to corporations and government with “intellectual academic autonomy”. 

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