Google disbands AI ethics board following pushback

Google on Thursday announced that it opted to disband its newly formed artificial intelligence (AI) ethics council following aggressive pushback from more than 2,000 Google employees. 

A Google spokesperson in a statement said Google is "going back to the drawing board." 

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"It’s become clear that in the current environment, [Advanced Technology External Advisory Council] ATEAC can’t function as we wanted," the spokesperson said. "So we’re ending the council and going back to the drawing board."

Google announced its new AI ethics board, a body tasked with serving as an ethical check on Google's AI technology production, last week. 

The board was immediately met with controversy as thousands of Google employees and hundreds of external petitioners took issue with one of the board's members, who they said had an "anti-trans" and "anti-immigrant" record. 

More than 2,380 Google employees signed onto a petition asking the company to remove Kay Coles James, president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, from the panel. They said James's positions on transgender and immigrant rights should have disqualified her from weighing in on AI ethics.  

“By appointing James ... Google elevates and endorses her views, implying that hers is a valid perspective worthy of inclusion in its decision making,” the petition read. “This is unacceptable.”

Conservatives in response urged the company to stand its ground, saying they supported James's inclusion on the panel. 

The group of protesting Google employees, who organized under the title "Googlers Against Transphobia and Hate," on Thursday evening celebrated the AI panel's dissolution.

"ATEAC is over, and we did this together," the Googlers Against Transphobia account tweeted. "So many people (over 2300 Googlers & over 300 supporters from industry, academia and civil society) answered the call to #StandAgainstTransphobia. We thank you for your support & unwillingness to compromise on hate." 

One of the council's members dropped out almost immediately after the council was announced. Leading behavior economist and privacy researcher Alessandro Acquisti last week tweeted, "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." 

On Wednesday, another of the council's members, Luciano Floridi, a leading AI expert, wrote on Facebook that James's inclusion was "a grave error and sends the wrong message." 
 
"I am appalled that someone who is so wrong about so many things concerning human and civil rights may be given even more credibility and influence than she already enjoys, by advising such an important company on such a crucial topic like the ethics of AI," Floridi wrote. 
 
The Google spokesperson on Thursday night said the company will "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."