Just a week after announcing they had formed an AI ethics advisory council to ‘keep them honest’ Google has dissolved the committee. The decision seems to have come following a storm of controversy about the members of the committee with a focus on Dyan Gibbens and Kay Coles James.
Gibbens is the CEO of Trumbull Uncrewed a drone company that collects and analyzes data via drones in energy and defense, a poor choice following the Maven Project disaster. James is the president of the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation. An organization that has been accused of spreading misinformation about climate change and anti-LGBT rhetoric.
Google employees display their disgust
The decision first reported by VOX reveals that thousands of Google employees signed a petition calling for the removal Kay Coles James from the committee. Google told VOX that they were dissolving the council and would go back to the drawing board to begin the process over.
The council was supposed to act as an independent body to oversee new and existing Artificial Intelligence project pursued by the tech giant. The council wasn’t given veto power over projects but had the loose agenda of keeping the company ‘honest.’
I'd like to share that I've declined the invitation to the ATEAC council. 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. I thank (1/2)— alessandro acquisti (@ssnstudy) March 30, 2019
The controversy kicked off when board member Alessandro Acquisti, a privacy researcher, announced on Twitter that he was stepping down, arguing, “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.”
Homophobic board member makes no sense
The petition to force Kay Coles James resignation quickly garnered support within Google, and even board members were going public about their unhappiness with her appointment. Oxford University philosopher, Luciano Floridi, pondered the ethical position of staying in the board with Coles James as a member.
In a Facebook post he muses on her appointment by Google.
“Asking for her advice was a grave error and sends the wrong message about the nature and goals of the whole ATEAC project. From an ethical perspective, Google has misjudged what it means to have representative views in a broader context. If Mrs. Coles James does not resign, as I hope she does, and if Google does not remove her (Googlers Against Transphobia and Hate), as I have personally recommended, the question becomes: what is the right moral stance to take in view of this grave error?”
Google has shown that they want to improve their track record when it comes to ethics and AI, but this committee seems to have been a poor decision from the get-go. The board members were scheduled to meet up just four times a year
This small amount of contact time from such a diverse group of thinkers and positions doesn’t seem like enough for them to really get a grip on all of Google’s activities nor form a working environment conducive to rigorous and fair debate.