Google has canned its AI ethics board after just a week due to outcry over its choice of panel members, claiming it would find "different ways" to bring in outside opinions.
The Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC) was announced on 26 March and immediately inundated with complaints over the inclusion of Kay Coles James, president of conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation.
Four days later, one of the listed members, Alessandro Acquisiti, announced he had "declined the invitation" to join, and the following day, Google staff launched a petition to remove James from the board, gaining almost 2,500 signatures.
Another board member, Oxford professor Luciano Floridi, revealed he had not known who the other panellists would be in advance and backed the campaign, saying Google had "misjudged" what representation meant. He stopped short of resigning from the group himself.
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Caving under the pressure, Google late yesterday pulled a huge U-turn, choosing not just to boot James, but also to ditch the entire board and start from scratch.
"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," a Google PR person said in an emailed statement.
"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 controversy centred on the fact that James has repeatedly expressed transphobic views, and that her organisation has criticised and opposed climate change, immigration and LGBTQ+ rights.
The decision to scrap the whole board will do little to convince people that it wasn't just a poorly thought-through PR move – and the dissolution was celebrated by those that campaigned against it.
ATEAC is over, and we did this together. So many people (over 2300 Googlers & over 300 supporters from industry, academia and civil society) answered the call to #StandAgainstTransphobia. We thank you for your support & unwillingness to compromise on hate.https://t.co/NHVSFUkqsf— Googlers Against Transphobia (@EthicalGooglers) April 4, 2019
However, AI prof Joanna Bryson of the University of Bath, one of the members of the panel, expressed disappointment that Google was unable to explain its reasons for choosing the board.
"I was waiting to see whether Google stuck to their guns on a very difficult and presumably careful decision, or fixed the decision," she said on Twitter. "People told me Google would actually just bail, but I found that incredible."
I thought there were enough smart people at Google that there must be some process for either communicating or improving decisions. But I was wrong, and the people who called me naive were right. #ATEAC— Joanna J Bryson (@j2bryson) April 5, 2019
Earlier this week Bryson told The Register that she didn't think that "bullying and shunning" were solutions, and that she would have tried to persuade James of her perspective if they were in the same meetings at Google.
Bryson had said she thought she could do some good by being on the board, and reiterated this idea today:
It is actually possible to both agree that it's wrong to promote agendas of hate, and also to believe that it's at least slightly possible that that was the least worst option if the goal was to have global influence on something really important.
Floridi's blogpost about his decision to remain on the board made similar arguments, saying that the council was a "good idea" and that it was important people remained to challenge James.
"I wish Google had never asked Mrs Coles James to advise it. But now that it has, since it has also asked for my own advice, I shall double my efforts and, insofar as I can, help support the voice of reason and knowledge, and foster tolerance and mutual respect for individual choices and human diversity," he said.
"Resigning may be the only solution in the future, if I fail to make any positive difference. But I am not convinced that resigning before even trying is the best course of action."
El Reg has contacted James, via the Heritage Foundation, and the other panel members for comment. ®