Google’s AI Ethics Panel Disbands After One Week

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA — After trying to stay together for a rough week, Google’s newly appointed AI Ethics Panel has disbanded. The Alphabet company announced the roster of individuals selected to serve on its Advanced Technology External Advisory Council in late March, and soon ran into some public relations problems. Among the earliest controversies was the appointment of the President of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

“This group 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’s Senior Vice- President of Global Affairs, Kent Walker, said in a blog post that announced the board, which also unveiled plans for the board to meet four times a year.

First, Alessandro Acquisti, a behavioral economist and privacy researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, resigned over 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,’’ Acquisti said on Twitter. He didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Next, over 500 employees at Google voiced their concerns about a second member, circulating a petition which urged their employer to remove Kay Coles James, President of the Heritage Foundation, because of his history fighting against equal-rights laws for gay and transgender people.

More negative optics came from many directions. AI experts and activists called on Google to remove Dyan Gibbens, the CEO of Trumbull Unmanned, a drone technology company who has created technology for the U.S. military. Then, another appointee, Joanna Bryson, a professor of computer science at the University of Bath, in England,expressed reservations about some of her fellow council members. “Believe it or not, I know worse about one of the other people,” she said on Twitter in response to a post questioning the appointment of Coles James. “I know I have pushed [Google] before on some of their associations and they say they need diversity in order to be convincing to society broadly, e.g. the GOP.”

Finally, Google threw in the towel, telling Vox on Thursday of last week that the board would be disbanded. Wrote Google, “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. 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.”