Abstract :

The work of this study was to go back and explore old tactics used in the 1850s by Big Tobacco to fund and sway academic research and public away from the potential harms of smoking ; and how much of the same tactics presented are being almost identically copied by Big Tech today to control the narrative surrounding Ai and the ethics involved. The researches present documented records of numerous instances where Big Tech today is setting itself up in vastly similar ways to that of Big Tobacco did and how without any regulation or overreach there is nothing stopping them from continuing the same things moving forward. This is damaging the outcomes of research in legitimate areas of concern and should be closely watched and corrected when discovered.

As artificially intelligent systems become more and more advanced, even being considered accurate enough now to integrate into all different types of industries, there is urgency required to implement rules and regulations to guide the algorithmic systems being adopted to protect citizens against potential harm or biases placed against them. Government bodies rely on academic research and advice to shape policy regarding Artificial Intelligence and it is imperative to mitigate and remove conflicts of interests that may cloud there bias or judgement. 

[“ Our work explores how Big Tech is actively distorting the 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 dis- course. We examine the funding of academic research as a tool used by Big Tech to put forward a socially responsible public image, influence events hosted by and decisions made by funded universities, influence the research questions and plans of individual scientists, and discover receptive academics who can be leveraged. We demonstrate, in a rigorous manner, how Big Tech can affect academia from the institutional level down to individual researchers. Thus, we believe 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 …

In this work, we explore the extent to which large technology corporations (i.e., “Big Tech”) are involved in and leading the on- going discussions regarding the ethics of AI in academic settings. By drawing upon historic examples of industry interference in academia and comparing these examples with the behavior of Big Tech we demonstrate that there is cause for concern regarding the integrity of current research, and that academia must take steps to ensure the integrity and impartiality of future research. ”]

For this study the researches chose to conservatively focus on a select handful of companies that they labeled “big tech” , limited selection of companies was intended to not only simplify the paper but also to protect from skewing the results from a basket of companies considered ‘tech’ :

Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Nvidia, Intel, IBM, Huawei, Samsung, Uber, Alibaba, Element AI, OpenAI.

Essentially the guiding ‘playbook’ for a companies investment in academic institutions and studies is constituted in a set of covert ways. There is a clear troubling trend by large corporations funding research institutions in hopes to ‘groom’ academic – bearers to help drive younger peers in a direction that is best suited for the companies vision. 

The following set of goals presented  by the researches are broken down each in two parts the first explaining how Big Tobacco took this focus point and implemented it, followed by an example of how Big Tech today is taking vastly similar methods to position themselves in the same ways Big Tobacco was successfully able too. 

Four Main Goals that were examined by the researchers in this study :

  1. Reinvent itself in the public image as socially responsible; 
  1. Influence the events and decisions made by funded universities;
  1. Influence the research questions and plans of individual scientists;
  1. Discover receptive academics who can be leveraged.

1.a : (Big Tobacco)

In early 1960s ‘Big tobacco’ officially created what is known as the CTR (Counsel for Tobacco Research) after a damaging scientific research was published in 1954 entitled “Cancer by the carton”. This study was discussing the links shown between smoking and significant risk its causes for lung cancer. While not explicitly denying these claims big tobacco quickly published a statement called “A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers” trying to mitigate some of the initial harm to public opinion towards smoking. This public relations campaign we intended to portray big tobacco as friendly corporations working with the best intentions for there consumers. But besides the initial PR campaign they were running the were meticulously planning a much bigger operation behind the scenes looking to “cooperate closely with those whose task it is to safeguard the public’s health” in the hopes to sow doubt in the the scientific research being conducted. During the CTRs existence they Cooperatively provided hundreds of millions were funded to academic institutions and independent research surrounding tobacco and its effects. The way the funding was strategically set up involved lawyers instead of scientists choosing which studies and experiments would be carried out essentially putting themselves in a position of controlling what narratives were published for the public to see. These studies being funded by the CTR would typically aim to shift the blame of lung cancer away from tobacco towards a variety of other sources ( ex. Birds for pets causing lung cancer being sought out and funded ). Another added benefit used from funding so many different studies was the balance sheets presented were portrayed as proof for Big Tobacco of social responsibility to there consumers. 

1.b : (Big Tech)

Very similar to the same way Big Tobacco’s created the CTR to seek out irrelevant research that could be correlated for the companies benefit , after a clear concern from the public regarding artificial intelligence ethics a group of Big Tech corporations ( Google, Microsoft, Facebook, IBM, and Amazon among others ) made the decision in 2016 to create the “Partnership on AI to Benefit People and Society”. This collective partnership created by the significant key players in Artificial Intelligence development was said to be put together with the intention too ‘study and formulate best practices on AI technologies’. 

Unfortunately many people outside of Big Tech quickly realized neither ACLU nor MIT nor any other nonprofit had any power in helping control or regulate this partnership leaving them open to influence the decision making process of universities that are dependent on them for money. This joint partnership has shown from many examples presented by the researchers that there main goal and objective was to sway industry interests to prevail over public interest.

2.a : (Big Tobacco) 

Positive PR being published by scientific research was not the only thing effected by the large amount of funding provided by Big Tobacco to universities. Evidence has shown Big Tobacco funding has influenced the decision made by universities reliant on them for money. A clear example presented in the study was as event involving the University of Toronto and the disruptive influence being created by there own law students on the Big Tobacco that was not in the industries best interests. 

[ “ Imperial Tobacco withheld its (previously consistent) funding from the annual conference at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law as retribution for the fact that UofT law students were influential in having criminal charges be laid against Shoppers Drug Mart for selling tobacco to a minor [15]. “ ]

Another clear example of controlled influence in academia by Big Tobacco is the documented recruiting of individuals in power.  This strategic recruiting carried out, helps control what decisions are approved or denied involving events that can be potentially harmful too the Big Tobacco industry. 

[ “ Examples of this include how the former President and Dean of law at the University of Toronto, Robert Prichard, was a director of Imasco (a large tobacco company) [13, 15]. In addition, Robert Parker who was the president and chief spokesperson for the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers’ Council, was also on the Board of the Foundation of Women’s College Hospital, a teaching hospital also affiliated with UofT [13]. “ ]

2.b : (Big Tech)

Just like Big Tobacco used the power of money ; declaring who does and who does not get funding, Big Tech has also used these methods to control outcomes of decisions being made in technology regulations. Big Tech has also decided to take a proactive initiative and host or fully fund conferences being held today regarding topics of potential implications for Future Ai developments and the ethical concerns surrounding them. 

[ “The top machine learning conference NeurIPS has had at least two Big Tech sponsors at the highest tier of funding since 2015. In recent years, the number of Big Tech companies at the highest tier of funding has exceeded five1. When considering workshops relating to ethics or fairness2, all but one have at least one organizer who is affiliated or was recently affiliated with Big Tech. “ ]

Just as Big Tobacco strategically recruited individuals in positions of power throughout academia ; Big Tech has mimicked this decision making by interlining people controlling government regulations with seats onboard top tier tech companies pioneering Ai. 

[ “ The Vector Institute, has as faculty members a Vice President of Google and the heads of various companies’ AI branches such as Uber, and Nvidia. “ ] 

3.a : (Big Tobacco)

Throughout its course CTR sought out to primarily fund projects unrelated to the health effects of smoking hoping to steer the idea away from Tobacco onto newly discovered (Usually unrelated) topics of concern. Another tactic deployed by Big Tobacco when scientific studies were published connecting health concerns with smoking, would to be to threaten the scientists involved that they could pay for giant media ads that would elusively point out the flaws in there studies in an attempt to shame the scientists.

Funding for a new study involving tobacco or the effects of smoking was very difficult to get approval for if the nature of the questions were positioned in a way that could potentially harm Big Tobaccos public image and profits. Because most researchers must seek out grants from funding bodies in order to perform there research, many scientists chose to just avoid the topic all together because of all the pushback and barriers put in place preventing them from what they really wanted to research.  

[ “ Phillip Morris and RJ Reynolds (large tobacco companies) also worked with elected politicians to block the funding of scientists with opposing view- points: ensuring “that the labor-HHS (US Department of Health and Human Services) Appropriations continuing resolution will include language to prohibit funding for Glantz (a scientist opposing Big Tobacco) [28, 34]. ” ]

3.b : (Big Tech) 

Following the same blueprint laid out by Big Tobacco it is clear the types of projects being funded, and the types of answers being provided are also being influenced by Big Tech. 

[ “To demonstrate the scope of Big Tech funding in academia, we explored the funding of tenure-track research faculty in the computer science department at 4 R1 universities: MIT, UofT, Stanford, and Berkeley. We show that 52% (77/149) of faculty with known funding sources (29% of total) have been directly funded by Big Tech”]

The study then goes on to present a variety of different surveys conducted with the results produced by them. Alongside charts there are many bar graph visuals to help put the results into a visual perspective. 

[ “ At minimum these statistics4 demonstrate a perceived, if not intended, conflict of interest between Big Tech and the research agendas of academics. As a result, it makes sense that much of the fairness work that exists holds the entrenched Big Tech view that “social problems can be addressed through innovative technical solutions” [32].”]

4.a : (Big Tobacco)

The last example published by the researchers explained how Big Tobacco attempted to leverage skeptics against the cause they were fighting so hard to deny. The lawyers woking at the CTR would actively seek out scientists who agreed to work with them going forward to help advocate against whatever legislation threatened Big Tobacco’s profits.

[ “ Part of the strategy devised by Hill (of Hill & Knowlton) leveraged skeptics within academia to sow doubt and foster distrust in the scientific findings [10]. These skeptics were solicited, given funding, and had their message amplified into the public discourse [9, 10, 40]. The result of such amplification resulted in new skeptics and the emboldening of existing ones – something in line with Big Tobacco’s goals. “ ]

[ “ addition to these activities, funding was reserved for researchers who would be used to testify at legislative hearings in favor of Big Tobacco. In fact, there was a concentrated covert effort on behalf of Philip Morris International to identify European scientists with no previous connections to tobacco companies who could be potentially persuaded to testify on behalf of Big Tobacco against proposed regulation on second hand smoking [9]. This was part of the larger Whitecoat Project which resulted in infiltrations in governing officials, heads of academia, and editorial boards [10, 28, 4] “]

4.b : (Big Tech) 

Just as Big Tobacco looked to leverage academia by exclusively funding researchers who agreed to work for them, Big Tech as well is following a lot of those same tricks themselves. 

Eric Schmidt former top employee at Google has received much backlash from critics for some of his decisions made surrounding “Ai Ethics” ( Eric Schmidt today is on the U.S. Board of AI Ethics ). Eric Schmidt was also caught citing a completely Google funded paper when writing to congress presenting advice for future legislation. 

[ “ Such blatant and egregious interaction with academia harkens to Big Tobacco’s Project Whitecoat. The name of our paper is an homage to Project Whitecoat: Project Grey Hoodie is referencing the buying out of technical academics. ” ]

[ “ These connections are not fully exposed or available to the general public or the majority of academics and thus quite difficult to analyze because unlike Big Tobacco there has been no litigation to uncover the needed documents for analysis [12]. ” ]

Conclusion :

The researchers reiterate that they mean no harm when publishing this study, they believe that a majority of contributions provided by academia is done with well intentions in mind. They simply wanted to make the public aware of the potential issues involved in allowing major tech companies to furnish large sums of money into the process of academia and the studies being performed whether it be Ethics or any other area of potential concern. The researchers believe there is an eerily similarity in the way Big Tech and Big Tobacco have decided to conduct themselves, usually resulting in massive amounts of influence over academia thanks to the endless amount of cash being dumped into academic institutions.

The researchers then finally go on to explain the most drastic change in the business model of these tech companies… It seems that it was initially considered that Technology overall would had a net positive affect on society, but as the models of these companies shifted from innovation into a strictly profit base model fulfilling there obligations to there shareholders to show continued rising gross margins; its new becoming very clear that many other concerning factors are being considered by these companies in regards to there decisions moving forward. The question can now be reasonably considered are all these big changes coming from the wave of Big Tech, and is the 4th industrial revolution really still a positive for society as a whole ?

I am not sure what the answer to that question still is but what I do seem to understand is the answer, whatever your opinion may be, is far from simply as Black and White. 

Moving forward looking at the future, it is suggested that legislation be put forth in order to protect academia and the studies/results of any legitimate research being done. For the sake of our society as a whole and where our species goes with these truly amazing tools at our disposal, it is up to government and legislation to help guide the direction for the future of tomorrow .

[ ‘We understand that it might not be possible (and some would argue undesirable) to completely divorce academia from Big Tech. However, financial independence should be a requirement for those claiming to study the effect of their technologies on our society. Any change that is undertaken must be deliberate and structural in nature.” ]  


*** https://arxiv.org/abs/2009.13676