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Google dissolves AI ethics board announced last week

By Marjorie van Elven

Apr 5, 2019

It barely lasted a week. Google is dissolving the Advanced Technology External Council (ATEAC), the seven-person ethics board which would advise the company on themes like artificial intelligence and facial recognition, just eight days after announcing its creation. The reason? Over 2,400 Google employees were less than happy to learn Kay Coles James, president of the Heritage Foundation, was among the people appointed to ATEAC. They signed a petition calling for her removal from the advisory group.

James is a conservative public policy expert best known for her anti-LGBTQ and anti-immigration remarks, as well as for her skepticism of climate change. Commenting on the appointment, a group who goes by the name of Googlers Against Transphobia posted on Medium on April 1: “In selecting James, Google is making clear that its version of ‘ethics’ values proximity to power over the wellbeing of trans people, other LGBTQ people, and immigrants. Such a position directly contravenes Google’s stated values”.

But Google’s employees were not the only ones putting the advisory group into question. Even its own members did so. AI psychology expert Joanna Bryson commented on Twitter: “I have no idea what I’m getting myself into, other than some idea of who I’m getting into with. I’ll certainly do my best to do good”. After a user asked her whether she felt comfortable working with James, Bryson responded: “Believe it or not, I know worse about one of the other people. I’ve only committed to one year. We’re not getting paid, though I personally think that makes it less ethical, not more”. Two days later, on March 30, behavioral economist Alessandro Acquisti also took to Twitter to announce his departure from ATEAC: “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”.

The controversy ultimately led Google to pull the plug on the ethics board. “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. We’ll continue to be responsible in our work on the important issues that AI raises, and will find different ways of getting outside opinions on these topics”, said the tech giant in a statement sent to American publication Vox.

Artificial Intelligence