How Big Tech Manipulates Academia to Avoid Regulation

December 20 2019, 10:19 a.m.

THE IRONY OF the ethical scandal enveloping Joichi Ito, the former director of the MIT Media Lab, is that he used to lead academic initiatives on ethics. After the revelation of his financial ties to Jeffrey Epstein, the financier charged with sex trafficking underage girls as young as 14, Ito resigned from multiple roles at MIT, a visiting professorship at Harvard Law School, and the boards of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the New York Times Company.

Many spectators are puzzled by Ito’s influential role as an ethicist of artificial intelligence. Indeed, his initiatives were crucial in establishing the discourse of “ethical AI” that is now ubiquitous in academia and in the mainstream press. In 2016, then-President Barack Obama described him as an “expert” on AI and ethics. Since 2017, Ito financed many projects through the $27 million Ethics and Governance of AI Fund, an initiative anchored by the MIT Media Lab and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. What was all the talk of “ethics” really about?

For 14 months, I worked as a graduate student researcher in Ito’s group on AI ethics at the Media Lab. I stopped on August 15, immediately after Ito published his initial “apology” regarding his ties to Epstein, in which he acknowledged accepting money from the financier both for the Media Lab and for Ito’s outside venture funds. Ito did not disclose that Epstein had, at the time this money changed hands, already pleaded guilty to a child prostitution charge in Florida, or that Ito took numerous steps to hide Epstein’s name from official records, as The New Yorker later revealed......