Just a week after it was announced, Google’s new AI ethics board is already in trouble.
The board, founded to guide “responsible development of AI” at Google, would have had eight members and met four times over the course of 2019 to consider concerns about Google’s AI program. Those concerns include how AI can enable authoritarian states, how AI algorithms produce disparate outcomes, whether to work on military applications of AI, and more.
Of the eight people listed in Google’s initial announcement, one (privacy researcher Alessandro Acquisti) has announced on Twitter that he won’t serve, and two others are the subject of petitions calling for their removal — Kay Coles James, president of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, and Dyan Gibbens, CEO of drone company Trumbull Unmanned. Thousands of Google employees have signed onto the petition calling for James’s removal.
James and Gibbens are two of the three women on the board. The third, Joanna Bryson, was asked if she was comfortable serving on a board with James, and answered, “Believe it or not, I know worse about one of the other people.”
Altogether, it’s not the most promising start for the board.
The whole situation is embarrassing to Google, but it also illustrates something deeper: AI ethics boards like Google’s, which are in vogue in Silicon Valley, largely appear not to be equipped to solve, or even make progress on, hard questions about ethical AI progress.
A role on Google’s AI board is an unpaid, toothless position that cannot possibly, in four meetings over the course of a year, arrive at a clear understanding of everything Google is doing, let alone offer nuanced guidance on it. There are urgent ethical questions about the AI work Google is doing — and no real avenue by which the board could address them satisfactorily. From the start, it was badly designed for the goal — in a way that suggests Google is treating AI ethics more like a PR problem than a substantive one.
Nearly half the board has resigned or is under fire
Google announced their AI ethics board last week, saying the board would “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.”
From the start, the board attracted criticism. Many people were outraged about the inclusion of Kay Coles James, the Heritage Foundation president.
“In selecting James, Google is making clear that its version of ‘ethics’ values proximity to power over the wellbeing of trans people, other LGBTQ people, and immigrants,” argues an open letter signed by more than 1,800 Google employees. A particular cause for concern was James’s stance that the trans rights movement is seeking to “change the definition of women to include men” in order to “erase” women’s rights.