After an employee backlash, Google has cancelled its AI ethics board a little more than a week after announcing it (GOOG, GOOGL)


Sundar Pichai

  • Google has shut down its new AI ethics board.
  • It was only announced last week.
  • It ran into immediate controversy over its choice of members, with thousands of employees signing a petition against a member who made anti-trans comments.

Google has shut down its AI ethics board little more than a week after announcing it.

Vox reports that the Silicon Valley tech giant has scrapped the group, which had been intended to scrutinise the company’s work on artificial intelligence to ensure the tech is ethically developed. A Google spokesperson confirmed the closure to Business Insider.

It was mired in controversy from the start, with thousands of Google employees up in arms about the inclusion of Kay Coles James, president of right-wing think tank Heritage Foundation.

Last Tuesday, Google announced the AI ethics board, called the Advanced Technology External Advisory Council, as a way for the company to address difficult ethical decisions it faces with AI.

“This group will consider some of Google’s most complex challenges that arise under our AI Principles, like facial recognition and fairness in machine learning, providing diverse perspectives to inform our work,” Google’s senior vice president of global affairs, Kent Walker, wrote in a blog post announcing it.

Controversy followed almost immediately after the Heritage Foundation president was named to the eight-person council, with some speculating that her addition was Google’s attempt to appease conservative lawmakers who have accused the tech giant of anti-conservative bias. She has previously made anti-trans comments, including calling transgender women”biological males.”

A group of Google employees, known as Googlers Against Transphobia, started a petition demanding her ouster, writing that for Google to appoint James to the ethics board “elevates and endorses her views, implying that hers is a valid perspective worthy of inclusion in its decision making.”

The group said that her addition “significantly undermines Google’s position on AI ethics and fairness” and that because “the potential harms of AI are not evenly distributed,” people “who are most marginalized are most at risk.” Nearly 2,400 Google employees subsequently signed the petition.

Alessandro Acquisti, a leading behavioral economist and privacy researcher, subsequently stepped down from Google’s ethics board, saying he did not think it was “the right forum for me to engage in this important work.” Numerous academics, among others, also signed the petition calling for James’ removal.

In a statement, a Google spokesperson said: “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. “

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