Google Terminates AI Ethics Council After One Week
Google says it is going “back to the drawing board” in the wake of major outcry against its appointment of a right-wing thinktank leader.
Only one week after its launch, Google decided to dissolve its controversial Artificial Intelligence (AI) Ethics boards, which was formed to consider ethical issues around AI and other emerging technologies.
The now-defunct Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC) was made up of eight members, which included technology experts and digital ethicists.
Had it not been axed, the ATEAC would have met four times over the course of 2019 to consider and make recommendations on concerns raised regarding Google’s AI programme.
Areas it would have considered include how AI can enable authoritarian states, how AI algorithms produce disparate outcomes, and whether to work on military applications of AI.
A Google representative said in an email: “It’s become clear that in the current environment, ATEAC can’t function as we wanted. So we’re ending the council and going back to the drawing board.”
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The decision follows swiftly on the heels of a major public outcry against the appointment of Heritage Foundation president Kay Coles James to the board, over her comments about trans people and her organisation’s skepticism of climate change.
James’ appointment prompted thousands of Google employees to sign a petition titled “Googlers Against Transphobia and Hate” calling for her removal.
In addition, the inclusion of CEO and founder of drone company Trumbull Unmanned on the board reignited old tensions over the use of Google’s AI technology for military applications.
Board member Alessandro Acquisti publicly quit the board stating “this is not the right forum for me to engage in this important work”.
University of Bath professor Joanna Bryson, who had expressed dissatisfaction at James’ appointment, had said she would continue to participate in the council.
Speaking to the Telegraph, Bryson said: “I don’t think they have done a very good job. And they know it.” She said she “didn’t understand why there is no transparency over an ethics board” and condemned Google’s lack of internal communication.
Bryson has faced harsh criticism on Twitter for her decision to remain on the board despite claiming she disagreed with James’ views. “I couldn’t imagine that they didn’t have a good reason for appointing some members,” she said. “But if an organisation like Google cannot figure out how to form a policy and communicate that to employees then there is no hope.”
This is the latest in a number of incidents where Google employees have flexed their collective muscle to influence the company’s foray into AI.
Last year, Googlers protested against the company’s work on Project Maven, a military contract to develop AI analysis of drone footage for the Pentagon.
Their protest saw Google CEO Sundar Pichai release ethical guidelines for the company to follow, which included a vow to never develop AI for weaponry and to only create technologies that are socially beneficial.