A non-profit that’s received millions of dollars in donations from Elon Musk to tackle technological threats to human existence offered a $100,000 grant to a right-wing extremist media platform in Sweden, it has emerged.
The Future of Life Institute (FLI) – set up to tackle existential threats to humanity, particularly the rise of advanced AI – told VICE World News that a failure of vetting led to it offering the grant to a foundation set up by Swedish online media platform Nya Dagbladet (New Daily) in August.
FLI only became aware of Nya Dagbladet’s right-wing extremist ideological affiliations during due diligence processes three months after the grant was offered, at which point the grant agreement was immediately revoked, FLI’s president Max Tegmark told VICE World News.
“At the time of the initial consideration of the foundation's proposal, FLI was simply not aware of the extreme nature of Nya Dagbladet or its history,” he said in an email.
The letter outlining the grant offer was first revealed in a report by EXPO, a Stockholm-based anti-racist organisation and media outlet, and also shared with VICE World News.
Tegmark, a renowned physicist, cosmologist and machine learning researcher who is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, stressed that FLI had not paid any funds to Nya Dagbladet, and would not do so in the future either.
“We would like to emphatically state that FLI finds groups or ideologies espousing anti-Semitism, white supremacy, or racism despicable, and would never knowingly support any such group,” he said.
Nya Dagbladet, a fringe far-right outlet described by EXPO as “pro-Nazi,” is known for pushing white-supremacist, anti-Semitic and conspiracist positions. This includes advocating for the racist ideology of ethnopluralism, endorsing the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement, and publishing Holocaust revisionist content.
By contrast, FLI was set up in 2014 by eminent scientists and technologists with the lofty aim of saving humanity from the potential existential risks posed by “transformative technologies.” The institute, which issues grants for “risk reduction” projects and has advised the United Nations and the European Union about artificial intelligence, has received millions of dollars in funding from Musk, who is listed as an external adviser to the institute. Another prominent donor is crypto pioneer Vitalik Buterin, the founder of Ethereum, who in 2021 donated $25 million to FLI to award grants for work “aimed at tipping the balance away from extinction, towards flourishing,” in the institute’s own words.
Tegmark, who founded FLI alongside others including Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, has a reputation as one of the world’s leading authorities on the potential threat of AI, with a particularly high profile in his Swedish homeland, where he was named “Global Swede of the Year” in 2020.
The “letter of intent” from Tegmark to Nya Dagbladet’s editor-in-chief, Markus Andersson, which confirmed the $100,000 grant, stated that it would be paid once Nya Dagbladet had registered a non-profit foundation to receive the funds.
EXPO obtained the letter of intent, a copy of which it shared with VICE World News, through a public records request to Swedish local authorities handling Nya Dagbladet’s application to set up the foundation.
EXPO reported that Nya Dagbladet was formally registered as a non-profit foundation in October last year, with the stated purpose of promoting “independent journalism in Sweden.” The foundation’s board of directors was made up of top editorial staff at the publication.
Nya Dagbladet is known for its far-right editorial line, which has lurched in an even more overtly anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi direction in recent years. Ahead of last year’s Swedish elections, one of the site’s editors advocated for readers to support the violent neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement, in an article contrasting the two groups on the extreme-right of the Swedish political spectrum.
The article included a section on “the Jewish lobby,” stating that “Jewish interest groups have been and still are the most driving force behind the transformation of Western societies into multicultural and multi-ethnic societies” and noted approvingly that the Nordic Resistance Movement “takes a stand against” what it called “Jewish interest groups” and “wants to dismantle its influence over non-Jewish nations.”
Asked how FLI – a non-profit led by respected scientists and externally advised by Musk, professors from Harvard, Berkeley and MIT, and even high-profile actors Morgan Freeman and Alan Alda – came to have offered a grant to an organisation with such views, Tegmark said it’s initial vetting had failed for a number of reasons.
He said that Nya Dagbladet downplayed its extremist ideological slant, which was “not evident (at least not to us) from their website,” and claimed that the prevalence of unfounded accusations of extremism in contemporary political debate had also played a part.
“The quality of public discourse worldwide has degraded so badly, with casual name-calling using highly charged labels, that many of these types of accusations are open to question upon examination,” said Tegmark.
“We confirmed however in our own due diligence process that sometimes these casual labels can be accurate,” he added. “We're currently working on improving our future vetting procedures.”
Tegmark said that Nya Dagbladet’s application for funding “for a media project directly related to FLI's goals” was one of scores received by his institute from around the world last year.
“Although we were initially positive about the proposal and its prospects – and wrote a letter of intent to this effect – our due diligence process later uncovered information indicating that NDF was not aligned with FLI's values or charitable purposes, and in November 2022 FLI informed the Foundation that we would not be moving forward with a grant agreement or grant,” he said.
Tegmark also rejected any suggestion that nepotism could have played a part in the grant offer being made, given that his brother, Swedish journalist Per Shapiro, has a podcast, Folkets Radio (People’s Radio), which appears on the “radio reports” page of Nya Dagbladet’s website, and has written articles for the site in the past.
Tegmark himself has appeared on Folkets Radio as a guest, discussing issues such as why he views Facebook's metaverse as a threat, and has tweeted his endorsement of the podcast, describing it as “a fun podcast where the ceiling is high and you get to hear interesting perspectives, including ones that neither he nor I necessarily share.”
He told VICE World News that the grant to Nya Dagbladet “would not have funded my brother,” given his brother was not paid for his work for Nya Dagbladet, and his podcast was non-commercial. He said his brother “was shocked by the recent revelations of extremism and plans no further association with Nya Dagbladet.”
Shapiro himself did not respond to a request for comment, while Andersson, Nya Dagbladet’s editor-in-chief, told VICE World News he did not want to comment.
Tegmark also said he felt reporting highlighting Musk’s associations with FLI was unwarranted, given he had no involvement in the grant being offered to Nya Dagbladet. Musk’s donations to FLI include $10 million in 2015, and $4 million in 2021.
“He's only one of many prominent members of the worldwide science and tech communities to have supported the Future of Life Institute over the years, and plays no role in our grantmaking decisions,” said Tegmark, adding that none of the funds donated by Musk would have gone to Nya Dagbladet if the grant had been fulfilled.
VICE World News reached out to both Musk – through his SpaceX company – and Buterin, for their comment on the grant offer, but neither responded.
Tegmark said that his institute would continue to work with others across the political spectrum in pursuit of its goals to safeguard humanity, but stressed it would always stand emphatically against racism, bigotry, bias, injustice and discrimination.
“They are antithetical to our mission to safeguard the future of life and to advance human flourishing,” he said.