Google’s ethics committee on artificial intelligence only lasted a week

More than 2,000 employees of the company protested against the presence in this committee of a conservative, whose positions they describe as “anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ and anti-immigrant”.

“It is now clear that in the current context, the committee can not function as we wish. We put an end to it and start all over again. “This is a terse post that published Google, Thursday, April 4, to announce the failure of its ethics committee project of artificial intelligence (AI).

Eight days earlier, on March 26, the company announced the launch of its Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATAC), an “external” committee charged with “examining some of the emerging challenges”. more complex “ related to the development of AI and its ethical issues. 

Like “facial recognition and machine learning bias, explained Google, one of the most advanced companies in AI research, on its site. The process was in line with the major ethical principles that she had articulated in June 2018, and that the committee should help her to respect.

It was composed of eight people from different backgrounds – economy, artificial intelligence, psychology, philosophy, diplomacy … – and was to meet for the first time in April.

“In direct contradiction to Google’s values”

It will finally be nothing. At stake: the presence in this committee of Kay Coles James, formerly of the Bush administration, president of the think tank The Heritage Foundation, and whose very conservative positions have ulcerated many employees of the Californian company.

In a text posted on 1st  April, they denounce its positions “openly anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ and anti-immigrant (…) , in direct contradiction with the values of Google”. 

His foundation had, among other things, led a lobbying campaign against Democratic proposals to strengthen the protections of LGBTQ people against discrimination,

“Moreover, they are in direct opposition to the idea that in the development and application of AI, justice should prevail over profit. 

Google cannot claim to support trans people and their trans employees – a population facing real concrete threats – and at the same time appoint as a key advisor in AI a person engaged in the invisibilisation of trans. “

The text has since been signed by nearly 2,500 Google employees, demanding that Kay Coles James no longer be part of the committee. Internally, reports the specialized website The Verge, others have defended it, explaining that it was necessary for this committee to represent different types of political ideas to function properly.

As the number of signatories increased, Alessandro Acquisti, a researcher in behavioral economics at Carnegie Mellon University and also a member of the committee, announced on March 30th that he no longer wanted to be part of it. “I do not think it’s the right place for me to get involved in this important work,” he wrote on Twitter.

Faced with this hectic departure, Google has finally decided to throw in the towel. “We will continue to be responsible in our work, on the important issues raised by the AI, and we will find other ways to get outside advice on these issues,” said the company in its statement.

Google faces pressure from its employees

In recent months, Google has had several times to face the mobilization of its employees, and to influence its decisions. 

In June 2018, the company had abandoned the Maven project, a partnership with the Pentagon for the automatic analysis of drone images, under the pressure of its employees – its ethical principles were started shortly after this case.

A few months later, the “googlers” had also expressed their dissatisfaction after learning that the company was thinking about the possible return of its search engine in China, in a version adapted to the censorship imposed by the regime. 

More recently, in the fall, thousands of Google employees were out of their offices, following the release of an investigation accusing the company of concealing cases of sexual harassment. A movement of unprecedented magnitude for Google, which responded by committing to more transparency.