Google scraps AI ethics panel after (another) workers revolt

Google has demonstrated just how fast things move in AI, by scrapping the ethics panel it set up barely a week ago.

The search and other tech giant announced its Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC) on March 26, pulling in a range of luminaries to “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.”

However, last weekend, one of its members, privacy researcher Alessandro Acquisti announced he was declining the invite for the committee, just as a storm gathered around another member, Kay Coles James, president of the conservative policy group, the Heritage Foundation.

Google’s own staff launched a petition against Coles James’ appointment, accusing her of being “vocally anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-immigrant.” As of Tuesday, 1,244 Googlers had backed the petition, and this number had climbed to 2,476 as of Friday morning

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Google had also attracted flack for its inclusion of Dyan Gibbens, CEO of Trumbull Unmanned  a drone company which pitches its services at the energy and government/defence sectors.

Other members of the panel were caught up in the hoohah. Philosophy professor Luciano Floridi said in a lengthy Facebook post earlier this week, “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 I can, help support the voice of reason and knowledge, and foster tolerance and mutual respect for individual choices and human diversity.”

However, on Thursday, Google relieved the remaining panel members from further ethical soul searching, by pulling the plug on the whole effort, adding the following note to the blog post announcing the panel:

“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.”

So, for now it seems that Google will rely on its own self-declared AI principles, laid out by CEO Sunda Pichai last June. Just around the same time it was licking its wounds after staffers forced it to promise to back out of Project Maven, a contract to supply AI services to the US Department of Defence.

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