Google’s Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC) has been shut down less than two weeks after its conception, according to a recent report. The reason for the AI ethics board’s premature cancellation lies with the choice of board members and a controversy that pushed thousands of Google employees to sign a petition calling for the removal of one board member in particular.
Controversy from the start
Namely, one of the original ATEAC members revealed last month by Google was Kay Coles James, president of The Heritage Foundation, a conservative organization which previously shown skepticism regarding climate change. The petition signed by thousands of Google employees highlights that Kay Coles James has also been historically vocal about her stance against immigrants and the LGBTQ community.
Seeing how ATEAC was formed in a quest to provide an outside perspective regarding Google’s use of AI and AI-related ethics, Kay Coles James’ inclusion in the ATEAC board raised concerns not only amongst Google’s employees but other board members as well, including leading philosopher and expert in digital ethics, Luciano Floridi, who wrote on Facebook that “asking for [Kay Coles James’s] advice was a grave error and sends the wrong message about the nature and goals of the whole ATEAC project.”
Luciano Floridi recommended Google to remove Kay Coles James from the board, all the while another board member, Alessandro Acquisti, leading behavioral economist and privacy researcher decided to leave the board altogether. Other board members who have decided to remain a part of Google’s ATEAC have started being questioned on social media as to why they haven’t heft the organization. Needless to say, the main purpose of ATEAC was lost amid controversy and Google had to make a choice.
Google decides to pull the plug
The implementation of ATEAC was officially announced less than two weeks ago on March 26 but in short time the goal of ATEAC was buried under uncertainties regarding its structure and ability to tackle the ethical questions that may arise from Google’s AI Principles program. As a result, Google decided to pull the plug on the board and is now reconsidering how it should continue tackling the problem.
“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.” wrote Google in an update of the original ATEAC announcement. Of course, the main idea behind ATEAC was for Google to gain an outside perspective on the topics of AI, its uses, and ethics, and the tech giant will continue to look for different solutions as to how this goal can be achieved without the original council.
Dissolving ATEAC is an understandable move from Google’s part especially given the previous controversies it’s been involved in as well as the morale of employees who have been vocal against Google’s decision to train machine learning solutions for Pentagon military drones last year using microworker services. But this series of events also shows that Google may have laid the ATEAC foundations wrongly from the very beginning given the polarized opinions of some of the board members. Perhaps going back to the drawing board is the best way to progress.
AI can be an extremely powerful tool and Google along with other tech giants involved with AI development will face many challenges as to how this new tool should be used to benefit humanity. ATEAC was meant as a step towards answering some of the ethical questions surrounding AI but its early demise should encourage Google to carefully consider and find a better solution moving forward.