As big data and machine learning reach ever deeper into our lives, bringing an ethical lens to how we develop and manage new and emerging technologies is more critical than ever.
Thanks to a $1.5 million gift from Tim Duncanson, BA’90, Western is establishing a new chair in ethics and technology. The university has provided an additional $1.5 million from its matching chairs program to create a $3 million endowment that will fund the position in perpetuity.
Duncanson’s relationship with Western goes back decades. In 1990, he graduated with a BA in history from Huron University College and has since supported several university initiatives, including the Robert and Patricia Duncanson Lecture Series, named after his parents. He is a partner at Kicking Horse Capital Inc., a Toronto-based investment firm, and after more than two decades in investment management—the bulk of it with Onex Corporation—he recently served as senior advisor to the deputy minister at the Department of Finance Canada.
The focus of the new chair reflects Duncanson’s personal interest in the implications of new technologies and the ethical and policy considerations surrounding it.
“With new products and features being released on a regular basis, I believe the benefits and risks of this technology—and its implications in the short and long term—need to be thoughtfully considered and openly debated,” said Duncanson. “Western is the place to do that.”
Possibilities and challenges of AI
Western’s newly appointed Chief AI Officer Mark Daley agreed. “Western is exceptionally well positioned to lead the way in developing ethical guardrails around artificial intelligence and prepare students for a future that looks markedly different from the present. We have the right people. And we have an incredible spirit of interdisciplinarity here. Tim’s vision and leadership around these very timely and critical issues will move us even further down the field. All the stars are aligned for us to do something truly impactful.”
A joint appointment between the department of computer science in the Faculty of Science and the department of philosophy in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities, the chair will support the development of new technologies, while also considering the broader implications around their use.
“Technology has always offered us possibilities but also challenges,” said Jan Plug, acting dean of the Faculty of Arts & Humanities. “With the arrival of AI, we are once again confronted with this duality, requiring us to question how we can ethically and appropriately use and engage with this technology, how it will impact individuals and societies and, most importantly, what it means to be human in the age of AI.”
The chair will seek to answer these and other pressing questions by bringing together perspectives across faculty and disciplinary lines.
“Having someone with deep knowledge and understanding of both the technical and ethical aspects of AI opens up a whole new level of engagement around some of the biggest questions of our time,” said Jeffrey Hutter, acting dean in the Faculty of Science. “This Chair will help ensure our students leave Western well versed in not only the technology but also its broader implications.”
Building on the University’s strong track record of leadership and innovation in the areas of ethics and AI, the chair will help take the Western community to the next level of engagement and impact.
“I’m not an ‘AI Doomer’,” said Daley. “But there are huge ramifications to this technology. As researchers and educators, we have a moral obligation to be responsible stewards of the technology we’re helping to create and deploy. This chair will help us do that.”