Artificial Intelligence
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Google takes new AI ethics council back to drawing board after staff backlash

The council was dissolved after just one week

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Google closed a newly-formed council intended to look at the ethics of artificial intelligence — just one week after starting the group. The company confirmed the decision late Thursday, April 4.

The Alphabet-owned company had set up the council in a bid to discuss the ethical implications of A.I. and other emerging technologies, like facial recognition, to look at the technology and its connection to issues including racial bias.

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Google launched the council on March 26, where eight people would meet four times through 2019, and address topics like how A.I. can be used by authoritarian states, whether Google should work on A.I. for military applications, and other subjects.

The council's formal name was the Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC). At its launch, Google described the council as a group which will "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."

Google had hoped the council's meetings would help inform its own work, and that of the broader technology industry. A report was due to be published summarizing discussions had by the eight-person council.

But, just 10 days later, a note was added to Google's blog post initially used to announce the council. The note reads: "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."

Photo of man using a smartphone's facial recognition systemThe council had intended to tackle racial bias in facial recognition AIiStock

Google 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."

The company did not say why it had been forced to abandon the council, but a petition signed by almost 2,500 Google employees — published on Medium on April 1 — raised issues with council member Kay Coles James. The Medium post, written under the byline Googlers Against Transphobia, claimed how James is "vocally anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-immigrant." The post points to tweets written by James on those subjects here, here and here.

The post added: "In selecting James [for the council], Google is making clear that its version of 'ethics' values proximity to power over the wellbeing of trans people, other LGBTQ people, and immigrants. Such a position directly contravenes Google's stated values."

Further hampering the council's launch, a report by Vox points to how the inclusion of Dyan Gibbens, chief executive of Trumbull Unmanned, a drone company, reopened divisions in Google over the use of A.I. technology in military application.

Alessandro Acquisti then declined Google's invitation to join the council, saying on Twitter: "While I'm devoted to research grappling with key ethical issues of fairness, rights and inclusion in AI, I don't believe this is the right forum for me to engage in this important work."

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