Twitter adds former Google VP and A.I. guru Fei-Fei Li to board as it seeks to play catch up with Google and Facebook

Key Points
  • Fei-Fei Li was chief of AI at Google Cloud up until October 2018 when she left as a result of leaked emails relating to the controversial Project Maven project. 
  • Li is widely respected in the AI industry and Twitter will no doubt hope that she can attract some talented researchers to the company. 
  • Twitter uses AI algorithms to rank what users see in their feeds, but there is potential to do much more with the technology. 

Twitter has appointed Stanford professor and former Google vice president Fei-Fei Li to its board as an independent director.

The social media platform said that Li's expertise in artificial intelligence (AI) will bring relevant perspectives to the board. Li's appointment may also help Twitter to attract top AI talent from other companies in Silicon Valley. 

Li left her role as chief scientist of AI/ML (artificial intelligence/machine learning) at Google Cloud in October 2018 after being criticized for comments she made in relation to the controversial Project Maven initiative with the Pentagon, which saw Google AI used to identify drone targets from blurry drone video footage.

When details of the project emerged, Google employees objected, saying that they didn't want their AI technology used in military drones. Some quit in protest and around 4,000 staff signed a petition that called for "a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology."

While Li wasn't directly involved in the project, a leaked email suggested she was more concerned about what the public would make of Google's involvement in the project as opposed to the ethics of the project itself. 

"This is red meat to the media to find all ways to damage Google," she wrote, according to a copy of the email obtained by the Intercept. "You probably heard Elon Musk and his comment about AI causing WW3."

"I don't know what would happen if the media starts picking up a theme that Google is secretly building AI weapons or AI technologies to enable weapons for the Defense industry. Google Cloud has been building our theme on Democratizing AI in 2017, and Diane (Greene, head of Google Cloud) and I have been talking about Humanistic AI for enterprise. I'd be super careful to protect these very positive images."

A rising star

Up until that point, Li was seen very much as a rising star at Google. In the one year and 10 months she was there, she oversaw basic science AI research, all of Google Cloud's AI/ML products and engineering efforts, and a new Google AI lab in China

While at Google she maintained strong links to Stanford and in March 2019 she launched the Stanford University Human-Centered AI Institute (HAI), which aims to advance AI research, education, policy and practice to benefit humanity.

"With unparalleled expertise in engineering, computer science and AI, Fei-Fei brings relevant perspectives to the board as Twitter continues to utilize technology to improve our service and achieve our long-term objectives," said Omid Kordestani, executive chairman of Twitter.

Twitter has been relatively slow off the mark in the AI race. It acquired British start-up Magic Pony Technologies in 2016 for up to $150 million as part of an effort to beef up its AI credentials, but its AI efforts remain fairly small compared to other firms. It doesn't have the same reputation as companies like Google and Facebook when it comes to AI and machine-learning breakthroughs.

Today the company uses an AI technique called deep learning to recommend tweets to its users and it also uses AI to identify racist content and hate speech, or content from extremist groups.

Competition for AI talent is fierce in Silicon Valley and Twitter will no doubt be hoping that Li can bring in some big names in the AI world given she is one of the most respected AI leaders in the industry.

"Twitter is an incredible example of how technology can connect the world in powerful ways and I am honored to join the board at such an important time in the company's history," said Li.

"AI and machine learning can have an enormous impact on technology and the people who use it. I look forward to leveraging my experience for Twitter as it harnesses this technology to benefit everyone who uses the service."