Break Up Big Tech? Some Say Not So Fast
Industry funding for academic research is nothing new, of course. The flow of capital, ideas, and people between companies and universities is part of a vibrant innovation ecosystem. But large tech companies now wield unprecedented power, and the importance of cutting-edge AI algorithms to their businesses has led them to tap academia for talent.
Students with AI expertise can command large salaries at tech firms, but companies also back important research and young researchers with grants and fellowships. Many top AI professors have been lured away to tech companies or work part-time at those companies. Besides money, large companies can offer computational resources and data sets that most universities cannot match.
Congressman Jerry Nadler of New York has already begun to prepare his Judiciary Committee, under the leadership of David Cicilline of Rhode Island, to probe anti-competitive consolidation in the tech industry, building on Nadler’s earlier observation that companies like Facebook “cannot be trusted” to regulate themselves.
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The Abdallas examined the CVs of 135 computer science faculty who work on AI at the four schools, looking for indications that the researcher had received funding from one or more tech companies. For 52 of those, they couldn’t make a determination. Of the remaining 83 faculty, they found that 48, or 58 percent, had received funding such as a grant or a fellowship from one of 14 large technology companies: Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Nvidia, Intel, IBM, Huawei, Samsung, Uber, Alibaba, Element AI, or OpenAI. Among a smaller group of faculty that works on AI ethics, they also found that 58 percent of those had been funded by Big Tech. When any source of funding was included, including dual appointments, internships, and sabbaticals, 32 out of 33, or 97 percent, had financial ties to tech companies. “There are very few people that don't have some sort of connection to Big Tech,” Abdalla says.
Adballa says industry funding is not necessarily compromising, but he worries that it might have some influence, perhaps discouraging researchers from pursuing certain projects or prompting them to agree with solutions proposed by tech companies. Provocatively, the Abdallas’ paper draws parallels between Big Tech funding for AI research and the way tobacco companies paid for research into the health effects of smoking in the 1950s.