Google, keen to join the ranks of megabucks firms aiming to convince punters they take the immoral use of their tech seriously, has launched an ethics advisory council with what it terms "diverse" perspectives.
The council includes the president of a controversial right-wing think tank and the boss of a drone company, and the kick-back to these rather overshadowed what the search giant no doubt hoped would be a shiny-happy PR op.
But concerns that these massing bodies are little more than talking shops have led to accusations that firms are simply "ethicswashing" – signalling to the public they are considering the impact of their tech, while avoiding taking any action that might damage their bottom lines.
Google said its Advanced Technology External Advisory Council, created to oversee and implement its AI principles, will "consider some of Google's most complex challenges... like facial recognition and fairness in machine learning".
The panel includes a former diplomat, respected boffins in the field of AI and tech ethics, including University of Bath professor Joanna Bryson – and some, er, more surprising choices for a body seeking to police the immoral use of Google's tech.
The full list is published by Google here, but this tweet serves as a pithy summary:
Google AI ethics board has: AI ethics 15+ years & uncompromising @j2bryson, privacy star @ssnstudy, top information philospher @floridi, 2 more AI profs: De Kai Wu has done ethics work, Barr hasn't, respectable diplomat Bill Burr, a drone firm Ivanka fan, and a think tank bigot.— Eerke Boiten (@EerkeBoiten) March 26, 2019
Alarm bells are ringing over the appointment of Kay Coles James, president of conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, which has come under fire for spreading misinformation about climate change. James has also made outspoken comments against trans people and immigration.
The other name that has ruffled feathers is Dyan Gibbens, CEO of drone intelligence and defence startup Trumbull Unmanned – which is at the very least a cringe-inducing appointment given Google's controversial, secretive and now canned involvement in the Pentagon's Maven project.
Critics took to social media to call out these appointments in particular, speculating that they would hold some "mildly horrific" views and that Google had padded the board with right-wing people as a sop to the current political environment.
Others rounded on the rest of the panel for taking a place at a table. Bryson was the most open in her responses, saying she also had concerns.
Yes, I'm worried about that too, but overall I think what I know is more useful than my level of fame is validating. I know that I have pushed them before on some of their associations, and they say they need diversity in order to be convincing to society broadly, e.g. the GOP.— Joanna J Bryson (@j2bryson) March 26, 2019
However, she also remained pragmatic about what impact she could have on the tech titan.
I doubt I can secure anything against a $1T company, but I appreciate your enthusiasm.— Joanna J Bryson (@j2bryson) March 26, 2019
Which is probably a realistic approach to make, especially given that the ad-tech Goliath's parent firm Alphabet recently disbanded DeepMind Health's independent review panel.
The surprise move was taken at the same time it sucked the health AI arm into the mothership – and shortly after the independent panel urged DeepMind to clarify its relationship with Google.
We've asked Google for comment on the criticisms of the panel's make-up. ®