Google dissolves AI ethics board just one week after forming it

Google today disclosed that it has dissolved a short-lived, external advisory board designed to monitor its use of artificial intelligence, following a week of controversy regarding the company’s selection of members. The decision, reported first today by Vox, is largely due to outcry over the board’s inclusion of Heritage Foundation president Kay Coles James, a noted conservative figure who has openly espoused anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and, through the Heritage Foundation, fought efforts to extend rights to transgender individuals and to combat climate change.

The advisory board, called the Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC), included a number of prominent academics in fields ranging from AI and philosophy to psychology and robotics. But it also included those with policy backgrounds, like James and members of former US presidential administrations.

The goal was ostensibly to inform Google’s AI work and to ensure it was following its AI Principles, set out last year by CEO Sundar Pichai after revelations the company was participating in a Pentagon drone project that made use of the company’s machine learning research. Google has since said it will stop working on the project and has pledged never to develop AI weaponry or work on any project or application of AI that violates “internationally accepted norms” or “widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.”

“It’s become clear that in the current environment, ATEAC can’t function as we wanted,” a Google spokesperson told The Verge. “So we’re ending the council and going back to the drawing board. 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 makeup of the board faced fierce backlash the same day it was announced, and that backlash only intensified both within and outside the company in the following days. Google gave no insight into how it chose its members. But the decision may have been influenced by a desire to appease Republican lawmakers and to curry favor in the event of regulation around AI research and its application in real-world products and services.

The pressure on Google, which had yet to respond to the initial backlash, mounted over last weekend when Carnegie Mellon Professor Alessandro Acquisti stepped down on Saturday, writing 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.” By the beginning of this week, thousands of Googlers had signed a petition asking for James’ removal from the board.

The dissolution of the board is another victory for Google employees. Over the last couple of years, since the firing of James Damore, members of the search giant have mounted successful efforts within the company to enact change around the treatment of female employees, unfair and exploitative policies and practices like forced arbitration and contract labor, and participation in defense-related government programs. Last year’s Google walkout, which saw more than 20,000 employees protest the way the company protects male employees who sexual harass female colleagues, has led to an upswell in employee activism. Now, Google leadership tends to face substantial collective action around any hot-button topic the company finds itself embroiled in.