In Brief

Why Google has dropped its AI ethics board a week after launching it

Staff protest at controversial board member leads to company u-turn

Google has axed its artificial intelligence (AI) ethics board just a week after launching it following a backlash from employees.

The Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC), a board designed to ensure the “responsible development of AI” at the search giant, would have consisted of eight members who were to meet four times a year to evaluate “concerns” over Google’s AI products, says Vox

But nearly 2,500 employees at the firm signed a petition calling for the removal of council member Kay Coles James, president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, over comments she made about trans people and her organisation’s “skepticism of climate change”, the news site says. 

“Google is making clear that its version of ethics values proximity to power over the wellbeing of trans people, other LGBTQ people, and immigrants,” the petition said. “Such a position directly contravenes Google’s stated values.”

The petition continues by saying that the “potential harms of AI are not evenly distributed, and follow historical patterns of discrimination and exclusion”. It claims that there are instances where AI hasn’t recognised trans people, acknowledged “more feminine voices” or “see women of color”.

Google initially said that ATEAC would bring “diverse perspectives”, The Guardian reports. Along with James, the board included mathematics experts, a privacy researcher, the chief executive of a drone company and a former US diplomat.

Company chief Sundar Pichai announced plans to set up the ethics council last year, after it emerged the tech firm was “participating in a Pentagon drone project” that used data from Google’s AI research, The Verge reports. 

Google decided to cease work on the controversial drone project last summer and “pledged” to never work on projects where AI could be used as a weapon or that violate “internationally accepted norms”, the tech site adds. 

A company spokesperson told the website that it has “become clear that in the current environment, ATEAC can’t function as we wanted”.

“We’re ending the council and going back to the drawing board,” the spokesperson added. “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.”

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