Google pulls the plug on AI council that included Heritage Foundation leader

Google has abandoned an advisory board on ethics in AI after critics questioned the inclusion of Kay Coles James, leader of the right-wing think tank the Heritage Foundation, on the eight-person panel. Google employees and thousands more concerned people called for this mistake to be corrected, and in response the company has apparently chosen to drop the whole thing. Vox first reported the news.

The Advanced Technology External Advisory Council was launched late in March to “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.”

Among the names well known in tech and academia, James stood out; she and the Heritage Foundation harbor, as my colleague put it just two days ago, “vehemently anti-LGBT views and a deep track record of advocating for climate change denialism in the service of the oil and gas industry.”

Although a diversity of backgrounds and political affiliations are surely necessary for an advisory body like this one to be effective, the particular stands James has made on immigration, social issues and climate change, among others, made her inclusion puzzling for a company that is normally rather progressive on those topics. Including opposing viewpoints is one thing, but James and the Heritage Foundation cross the line into conduct that could be called hateful or disinformation.

A group organized within Google to oppose James’s inclusion, saying that it “elevates and endorses her views, implying that hers is a valid perspective worthy of inclusion in its decision making.” As of today 2,380 employees signed a petition asking her to be removed.

Other panelists were asked by many to justify their choices to work alongside James. Some, like Joanna Bryson and Luciano Floridi, felt they could do more good at the table than away from it (while not condoning James’s views); another, Alessandro Acquisti, “declined the invitation” after being announced as part of the panel.

Ultimately it seems like Google felt the panel was more trouble than it was worth. In a statement added to the original announcement post (less than 10 days old), it wrote:

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.

This rather ambiguous statement doesn’t do much to clear things up, and Google did not provide any further details in an email to TechCrunch. But going back to the drawing board sounds like a good idea.