Google's AI council has proved controversial with some employees.
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Tech Policy / AI Ethics

Google employees are lining up to trash Google’s AI ethics council

The independent council was meant to help Google’s public image, but the blowback shows just how fraught—and politicized—use of AI is becoming.

Apr 1, 2019

Almost a thousand Google staff, academic researchers, and other tech industry figures have signed a letter protesting the makeup of an independent council that Google created to guide the ethics of its AI projects.

The search giant announced the creation of the council last week at EmTech Digital, MIT Technology Review’s event in San Francisco. Known as the Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC), it has eight members including economists, philosophers, policymakers, and technologists with expertise in issues like algorithmic bias. It is meant to hold four meetings a year, starting this month, and write reports designed to provide feedback on projects at the company that use artificial intelligence.

But two of those members proved controversial. One, Dyan Gibbens, is CEO of Trumbull, a company that develops autonomous systems for the defense industry—a contentious choice given that thousands of Google employees protested the company’s decision to supply the US Air Force with AI for drone imaging. The greatest outrage, though, has come over the inclusion of Kay Coles James, president of the Heritage Foundation, a think tank that opposes regulating carbon emissions, takes a hard line on immigration, and has argued against the protection of LGBTQ rights.

One member of the council, Alessandro Acquisti, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who specializes in digital privacy issues, announced on March 30th that he wouldn't be taking up the role. “While I'm devoted to research grappling with key ethical issues of fairness, rights & inclusion in AI, I don't believe this is the right forum for me to engage in this important work," he tweeted.

The creation of ATEAC—and the inclusion of Gibbens and James—may in fact have been designed to appease Google’s right-wing critics. At roughly the same time the council was announced, Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, was meeting with President Donald Trump. Trump later tweeted: “He stated strongly that he is totally committed to the U.S. Military, not the Chinese Military. [We] also discussed political fairness and various things that Google can do for our Country. Meeting ended very well!”

But one Google employee involved with drafting the protest letter, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that James is more than just a conservative voice on the council. “She is a reactionary who denies trans people exist, who endorses radically anti-immigrant positions, and endorses anti-climate-change, anti-science positions.”

Some noted AI algorithms can reinforce biases already seen in society; some have been shown to misidentify transgender people, for example. In that context, “the fact that [James] was included is pretty shocking,” the employee said. “These technologies are shaping our social institutions, our lives, and access to resources. When AI fails, it doesn’t fail for rich white men working at tech companies. It fails for exactly the populations that the Heritage Foundation’s policies are already aiming to harm.”

Messages posted to a Google internal communications platform criticized the appointment of James especially. According to one post, earlier reported by the Verge and confirmed by the employee, James “doesn’t deserve a Google-legitimized platform, and certainly doesn’t belong in any conversation about how Google tech should be applied to the world.”

As of 5:30 pm US Eastern time today the public letter, posted to Medium, had been signed by 855 Google employees and 143 other people, including a number of prominent academics. “Not only are James’ views counter to Google’s stated values,” the letter states, “but they are directly counter to the project of ensuring that the development and application of AI prioritizes justice over profit. Such a project should instead place representatives from vulnerable communities at the center of decision-making.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said only seven Google employees had signed the letter on Medium.