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Schwarzman dances to AI beat after $350M gift to MIT

(Bloomberg) --Steve Schwarzman had just posed for a photograph in a room glowing in red light, and wanted to clarify his location over the high-volume electronic music.

“I’m not at a disco,” he said.

Actually, it was almost 9 a.m. Thursday in an auditorium of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the dark club atmosphere was apparently the way to ease people into a full day of talks, panels and poster sessions on artificial intelligence.

By the end of it, Schwarzman was ready to disco. With Ratatat playing, he danced across the stage on his way to take a photo with his wife, son and the president of MIT, Rafael Reif.

The program was full of ego-pumping for the Blackstone Group co-founder, designed around celebrating MIT’s new college, named the Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing for his $350 million gift.

“The gift you’ve given has ignited an explosion that will bring in billions,” former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, now an MIT fellow, said in the late morning. “It’s rare you get a founder with that kind of leverage."

‘The Anchor’

The new college will focus on preparing students to use artificial intelligence and computers to shape the future in ethical and responsible ways. A repeated theme was the need for technologists to go into politics and policy.

“MIT is going to be the anchor of what we will know in society as public interest technology,” said Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation.

Steve Schwarzman.jpg
Stephen "Steve" Schwarzman, co-founder, chairman and chief executive officer of Blackstone Group LP, speaks at an Economic Club of Washington luncheon in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015. Blackstone, the world's biggest manager of alternative assets, oversees an industry record $333 billion in private equity, real estate, credit assets and hedge funds. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** Steve Schwarzman

MIT professor Neri Oxman -- who’s expecting a child with husband Bill Ackman -- introduced her concept of “mothering nature by design” with materials like shrimp shells and melanin. MIT’s Vivienne Sze said she’s looking into an at-home diagnostic tool for Alzheimer’s based on eye movements recorded on a mobile phone. Breyer Capital’s Jim Breyer said AI will “absolutely not replace doctors.

Two Sigma’s David Siegel, founding adviser of the MIT Quest for Intelligence, perused some of the posters in the tent, where bacon strips and mini tacos were offered. One featured graphics that reminded him of Scratch, the visual programming language created by MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group.

Schwarzman, 72, is drawn to artificial intelligence because it’s about identifying problems and finding solutions in paradigm-shifting ways -- something he says he enjoys doing himself. He also relates to a discipline based on pattern recognition, which he said humans have been doing at Blackstone for years.

Economic Expansion

“The idea of building data sets and employing them at our place has only been 33 years old,” Schwarzman said in an interview. “So when people ask, ‘Aren’t you alive and awake now that people have data sets and how are you using them?’ The answer is that it is one of our firms enduring competitive advantages, from day 1 from our strategic plan.”

Schwarzman said he’s interested in how the new MIT college can keep the U.S. competitive, and outlined challenges.

“Our financial system is in very good shape,” he said, with interest rates low and financial institutions stronger with tighter regulations. “The economic expansion should continue for quite some time."

On the other hand, internal U.S. politics are an area of risk. “There are a lot of people who don’t think they’re going to do as well as their parents. And the reason they believe that is that’s correct,” Schwarzman said. “And it’s bigger than just that. It’s the fact that as a result of that, politically, things could end up occurring in the country that are very destabilizing for the entire economy, which would affect everyone.”

The effect would be dramatic, he added, “if politically we end up going in areas that are untested here but have failed globally.”

With so many thoughts to offer, it seemed worth asking: Is MIT going to be studying the brain of Steve Schwarzman?

“Studying me is actually pretty worthless,” he said. “What they are studying is the brains of two-year-olds.”