Stanford Won't Exclude Former Alphabet Chairman From AI Ethics Talks

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Despite stiff opposition from current and former Google employees, former Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt will still be delivering a keynote address at a Stanford University AI conference in October. That's according to recent reports stemming from a letter penned to the event's organizers by former Googler Jack Poulson.

Signed by more than 40 individuals — around half of whom are still working at Google or sister companies — the letter requested that Stanford consider rescinding Mr. Schmidt's invitation to speak.

The point of contention expressed in the letter settles on a similar theme. The conference — hosted by Stanford's Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI) — centers its focus on the theme of "AI Ethics, Policy, and Governance."

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The signatories suggest that it is not appropriate for the former Google CEO and Alphabet chairman to present a keynote at the event given the ongoing ethical dilemmas within the company. The bulk of those started well before Mr. Schmidt stepped down to an advisory role with the company earlier this year.

The controversy surrounding the former Google and Alphabet Exec

Mr. Poulson previously worked as a machine learning expert at Google before resigning last year over controversies surrounding Project Dragonfly. The project was a bid to open a path into China for Google through the creation of a search engine that would include censorship at the behest of the Chinese government.

Specific controversies pointed out in the letter include prominent concerns that have circulated for more than a year. Those stem from Project Dragonfly to the Google policies pertaining to sexual harassment but more directly to the role played and statements made by Mr. Schmidt.

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Those examples have been well-publicized but the letter also claims that the former executive played a role in at least one U.S. Department of Defense worker losing their position on the Defense Innovation Board.

Specifically, the letter points to reports that Roma Laster was removed from the board after attempting to ensure that Mr. Schmidt and Jeff Bezos were "following the rules." Ms. Laster's job with the board was to "avoid problematic conflicts of interest" the letter states.

Conflicts of interest may also be present in the conference itself, Mr. Poulson claims, advising a 'higher level of care'.

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The concern on that front comes down to the fact that the current HAI co-director, Fei-Fei Li, has previously held an executive position with Google in AI and Mr. Schmidt's position as a member of the institute's advisory council.

This is meant to be an open discussion

The majority of Google's controversies have continued on in spite of Mr. Schmidt stepping down from his role at both Google and Alphabet. That has included those associated with its handling of sexual misconduct and ethical business practices.

Regardless, Stanford will not be rescinding its invitation to have Mr. Schmidt speak at the event.

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Stanford professor and associate director of HAI Rob Reich says that the purpose of the event and of Mr. Schmidt's keynote is to engage. Specifically, he'll be engaging with former European Parliament member Marietje Schaake.

Mr. Poulson believes that still undermines the purpose of the event since it endorses Mr. Schmidt as a "leader" on AI ethics and has said that a roundtable discussion would be better but still plans to attend the event.