Charity Reports

Center for Security and Emerging Technology

Published on
2020-11-27
Written by
Aidan Goth
Stephen Clare

Center for Security and Emerging Technology

The Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) is a think tank producing policy analysis at the intersection of national and international security and emerging tech, based at Georgetown University.

What problem are they trying to solve?

CSET works on problems posed by emerging technologies and is currently focused on the security implications of progress in artificial intelligence (AI).

In recent years, machine learning approaches to AI development have made strong progress in a number of domains. AI systems: now surpass humans at image recognition and games such as chess, Go and poker; have made huge progress in areas such as translation; and have even made novel scientific discoveries, such as predicting how proteins will fold. Figure 1 illustrates the rapid recent improvements in AI image generation: AIs are now able to produce synthetic images that are nearly indistinguishable from photographs, whereas only a few years ago the images they produced were crude and unrealistic.

Figure 1.

AI faces

Source: Brundage et al., The Malicious Use of Artificial Intelligence: Forecasting, Prevention, and Mitigation (2018): p.15. In order, the images are from papers by Goodfellow et al. (2014), Radford et al. (2015), Liu and Tuzel (2016), and Karras et al. (2017).

What do they do?

Founded in 2019 with an initial grant from the Open Philanthropy Project, CSET has a dual mission:

  1. Produce research and analysis that directly impacts US policy on issues at the intersection of national security and emerging technologies.
  2. Prepare the next generation of policymakers to have the cross-disciplinary knowledge and skills required to work effectively on these issues.


In line with the first objective, CSET produces research papers and policy briefs that seek to inform policy decisions in the United States.

With respect to the second objective, CSET funds early-career professionals to work at the Center as Research Fellows and Research Analysts. CSET’s goal is to see these researchers go on to work in organisations where they can influence policy directly. For example, multiple CSET staff have already moved on to positions in the US government.

Why do we recommend them?

  • Open Philanthropy, our research partner, recommends CSET as one of the highest-impact organisations in the world working on risks posed by emerging technology.
  • Although CSET is a young organisation, there is evidence that CSET has positively influenced US policy.
  • CSET’s Founding Director, Dr. Jason Matheny, has a strong track record of success in founding, scaling and leading influential organisations.


As a new organisation, CSET has a brief track record. However, there is some evidence that they are able to positively influence US policy. CSET provided us with two case studies of their policy influence, one of which we are able to share publicly.

Case study: US Department of Defense’s Ethical Principles for Artificial Intelligence

CSET researchers participated in workshops hosted by the Department of Defense (DoD) while the DoD was drafting principles to govern its use of artificial intelligence. These principles, along with supporting documentation, were published in early 2020. Of particular relevance to CSET’s work are Principle 1, which urges responsible deployment of AI technologies, and Principle 4, which emphasises reliability, safety and security as goals of AI development.

It remains to be seen how influential or effective the AI Principles are in facilitating the development of safe and beneficial artificial intelligence systems. We have not found any in-depth analyses of the value of the Principles or of CSET’s role in shaping them. However, we take the fact that two members of CSET are listed as consultants in the AI Principles’ supporting documentation as some evidence of CSET’s strong reputation and ability to influence stakeholders in the security community.

Why do we trust this organisation?

For this recommendation, we are grateful to be able to utilise the in-depth expertise and background research done by current and former staff at Open Philanthropy, the world’s largest grant-maker on global catastrophic risk. Open Philanthropy identifies high-impact giving opportunities, makes grants, follows the results and publishes its findings. (Disclosure: Open Philanthropy has made several unrelated grants to Founders Pledge.)

Our main reason for recommending CSET is its organisational strength, especially the abilities of its Founding Director Jason Matheny. Dr. Matheny has a strong track record of success in founding, scaling and leading influential organisations. Prior to founding CSET, he was the Director of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), worked at the Future of Humanity Institute, and founded the cellular agriculture research institute New Harvest.

That said, new organisations are likely to face unexpected challenges and funding them is generally more risky than funding established organisations. In this case, our concerns are also somewhat mitigated by Dr. Matheny’s past successes, CSET’s partnership with Georgetown University, and Open Philanthropy’s recommendation.

What would they do with more funding?

CSET’s future projects include conducting further research using their existing datasets, building new datasets, and expanding their research team. A major new project for CSET may be an expansion into research on biosecurity in addition to their current focus on AI and advanced computing.

It seems likely that as artificial intelligence systems become more powerful across a range of domains, policymakers will come under increasing pressure to act to secure the benefits and reduce the risks of such systems. It also seems important that researchers and advocates are in a strong position to provide those policymakers with high-quality, actionable advice. CSET appears to be uniquely well-positioned to play this role.

The Open Philanthropy Project currently provides most of CSET’s funding through an initial grant of $55 million for CSET’s first five years. CSET has also received much smaller amounts of funding from the Hewlett Foundation and Public Interest Technology University Network for specific projects.

CSET’s future funding needs depend in large part on Open Philanthropy’s funding decisions. Nevertheless, we believe that CSET could absorb up to $5 million of additional funding at this time. CSET has suggested to us the following activities for different levels of funding would be initiated:

  • On the order of $100,000: hire additional Research Analysts or Research Fellows. CSET currently supports around 10 Analysts and around 10 Fellows, so an additional person would represent a tangible increase in their research output
  • On the order of $1 million: either hire up to 10 more staff or initiate a large data-based project (e.g. CSET Foretell)
  • On the order of $5 million: expand to another problem area beyond artificial intelligence and biosecurity


What are the major open questions?

Because CSET is a relatively new organisation with a limited track record, it remains to be seen how well they will achieve impact at scale. We are also unsure how much of CSET’s funding gap will be filled over the next year, which could affect the impact of additional funding from Founders Pledge members.

Message from the organisation

On AI, the United States must place democratic values front and center. These values are the foundation of deep alliances, and they draw smart enterprising people to our shores.

-Helen Toner, Director of Strategy

AI and other emerging technologies will deliver profound benefits to society, but they will also introduce new risks. Technologists don’t always consider the details of policy, and policymakers don’t always consider the details of technology.

-Jason Matheny, Founding Director

More resources


Disclaimer: We do not have a reciprocal relationship with any charity, and recommendations are subject to change based on our ongoing research.

Aidan Goth

Author

Aidan joined the research team at Founders Pledge in August 2019. Prior to working at Founders Pledge, he studied at the University of Oxford. He graduated with a First Class MMathPhil in Mathematics and Philosophy, specialising in formal epistemology, decision theory and ethics.

In his free time, Aidan enjoys film & theatre, audiobooks and playing squash.

Stephen Clare

Co-Author

Stephen joined the research team in 2019 with intentions of saving the world, or at least making it suck less. Previously he lived in Rwanda and Panama, where he worked as a Program Analyst for the United Nations and sweated a lot. Born and raised in rural Canada, Stephen is passionate about campfires, cedar trees, and highly-effective charities. He has complicated feelings about fish.