Artificial intelligence is becoming a politically charged issue for companies like Google, which faces fallout over an independent AI council that was meant to guide the ethics of its projects.
The search giant announced the creation of the council last week at EmTech Digital, MIT Technology Review’s event in San Francisco. But the inclusion of Kay Coles James, president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank, has sparked protest from those who decry the organization’s stance on LGBTQ issues, immigration, and climate change. And one of those appointed to the council has since resigned.
Google’s AI council, known as the Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC), includes 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.
The council’s roster includes several controversial appointees. Dyan Gibbens, for example, is CEO of Trumbull, a company that develops autonomous systems for the defense industry—a contentious choice given that some Google employees protested the company’s decision to supply the US Air Force with AI for drone imagining.
Even more controversial is the inclusion of the Heritage Foundation’s James, who leads an organization that argues against regulating carbon emissions, takes a hard line on immigration, and has argued against the protection of LGBTQ rights.
One Google employee involved with drafting the petition letter, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that James is more than just a conservative voice on the council.
“She is a reactionary that denies trans people exist, who endorses radically anti-immigrant position, and endorse anti-climate change, anti-science positions,” the employee said. “The fact that she was included is pretty shocking.”
The Google staffer added that the issue is so important because of the increasing power AI holds, as well as the capacity for the technology exacerbate inequalities. “These technologies are shaping our social institutions, our lives, and access to resources,” the employee said. “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. Some noted AI algorithms have the potential to wield tremendous power in reinforcing societal biases already seen in society. Some have been shown to misidentify transgender people, for example.
According to one post, 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.”
A letter protesting the appointment of James, and calling for her to be removed, was posted to the platform Medium as well as Google’s messaging system. It has so far been signed by seven Google employees as well as many technologists and academics from outside the company.
“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.”
The creation of ATEAC—and the inclusion of Gibbens and James—may in fact be 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!”
The backlash over ATEAC now even includes some of those chosen for the council. Alessandro Acquisti, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who specializes in digital privacy issues, wasted little time in announcing his resignation from ATEAC on Twitter: “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.”