Google cancels A.I. ethics panel after uproar

Key Points
  • Google identified the people who would serve on its Advanced Technology External Advisory Council last week.
  • The involvement of the president of the Heritage Foundation was called into question early on.
Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, speaks to the media before the opening of the Berlin representation of Google Germany in Berlin on January 22, 2019.
Carsten Koall | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Google has nixed its panel for discussing AI issues, one week after it was announced.

The sudden shift is a sign of change coming after employees at technology companies speaking out against actions their employers are taking. Vox was first to report on the move on Thursday.

Google named the constituents of its Advanced Technology External Advisory Council on March 26. "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, said in a blog post.

Walker said that the group would meet four times this year and that it would issue a report on the conversations.

Employees and outsiders quickly questioned the makeup of the board. Specifically, some people wondered why Kay Coles James, president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, was included on the council.

More than 2,300 Google employees signed a petition calling for Google to take Coles James off the council. The petition described her as "vocally anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-immigrant."

On March 30, Alessandro Acquisti, professor of information technology and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University and one of the people Google selected for the panel, announced that he had chosen not to participate.


And on Wednesday, Luciano Floridi, professor of philosophy and ethics of information at the University of Oxford and another person Google chose for the council, said that while he did not agree with the views of Coles James and the Heritage Foundation, he also felt he should nevertheless be involved.

"I wish Google had never asked Mrs. Coles James to advise it. But now that it has, since it has also asked for my own advice, I shall double my efforts and, insofar as a I can, help support the voice of reason and knowledge, and foster tolerance and mutual respect for individual choices and human diversity," he wrote in a Facebook post.

On Thursday evening, Google canceled the whole project.

"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," Google said in a statement affixed to the top of the announcement on Thursday. "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."

Google employees also pushed back against Google's collaboration with the U.S. military around artificial intelligence, and the company decided not to renew the contract. Additionally, Google said it wouldn't submit a bid for a $10 billion contract for cloud work with the Defense Department.

Microsoft and Salesforce employees have also reacted to their companies' actions in the past couple of years.

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