When Google announced an external advisory board for artificial intelligence projects last week, the company defined the decision as a step forward in accountability. Last year, the company announced a set of principles on how to build artificial intelligence tools, and this board, the company suggested, was the next step towards a more transparent Google.
"This group will consider some of Google's more complex challenges that arise under our AI Principles, such as facial recognition and impartiality in machine learning, that provide diverse perspectives to inform our work," the company said. an ad. The board, called the Advanced Technology External Advisory Board (ATEAC), included recognized experts in AI research who had worked in the field for years.
But some members of the new board of directors did an immediate scrutiny, especially Kay Coles James, president of the conservative Heritage Foundation. In social networks, some characterized the decision as an attempt to attend to the conservatives at the expense of real experience in the field. By Saturday, an artificial intelligence expert who was invited to the meeting withdrew, vaguely pointing out that it might not be "the right forum" for the job.
In private, several Google employees were also furious at the decision to include James. According to sources familiar with the discussions. In internal message boards, employees described James as "intolerant" and the Heritage Foundation as "surprisingly wrong" in their policies on issues such as climate change, immigration and, in particular, LGBTQ equality issues. A person with James' point of view, the employees said, "does not deserve a platform legitimized by Google, and certainly does not belong to any conversation about how Google technology should apply to the world."
and intensely critical of both James and the leadership of Google, according to sources. Employees criticized James's inclusion in Google as "horribly negligent or simply malicious" and cited a recent tweet from her about how "powerful nations" drove "the radical redefinition of sex." Heritage recently organized a panel of anti-transgender activists, and has lobbied against the LGBTQ discrimination protections proposed by Democrats in Congress. The foundation did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
Today @heritage will criticize gender identity @UN_CSW because powerful nations are pushing for a radical redefinition of sex. If they can change the definition of women to include men, they can erase efforts to empower women economically, socially and politically. # CSW63
– Kay Coles James (@KayColesJames) March 20, 2019
Employee concerns focused on what kind of information the board would have about Google technology. There are already questions about how AI technology could have a disparate negative effect on historically marginalized groups, including the LGBTQ community, and employees fear that the decision could promote those problems. "They think that some of our colleagues do not exist or should not exist," one employee wrote.
In its announcement publication, the company said the board will hold four meetings, starting this month, and the company will later publish a report on those meetings. It is not yet clear how much weight executives will give to that report. "We hope that this effort will be the basis for our own work and for the wider technology sector," the announcement reads.
The debate on Google was not completely one-sided. Some employees intervened to defend the appointment, either as a way to bring more points of view to the discussion on AI tools or at least as an intelligent political maneuver. Those employees have seen the appointment of James as a way to get ahead of the conversation and ease fears about the company, arguing that the board was probably "a political creation" and, of necessity, required conservative input. Critics of the board's appointment have dismissed the idea as an unnecessary joke.
In particular, right after the controversy over the appointment, President Trump tweeted that he had met with Google CEO Sundar Pichai. The two discussed the company's work with the government of the United States. "I just met with Sundar Pichai, president of Google, who obviously is doing quite well," President Trump tweeted after the meeting, confusing Pichai's position. "He said firmly that he is totally committed to the US military, not to the Chinese military. [We] he also discussed political equity and various things that Google can do for our country, the meeting ended well!"  By Monday, some Google employees had organized against the company's decision to include James on the AI board.In an open request, the organizers called James "vocally anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ and anti-immigrant. "The decision to place it on the board, the employees wrote, was a violation of Google's declared values, and added that" The potential harms of the AI are not distributed uniformly, and follow historical patterns of discrimination and exclusion. "
At the time of publication, 81 Google employees would have supported the request, Google did not respond to a request for comment.
The reaction against James will place the Google executives in a bind. Technology companies have faced pressure from both sides in Congress, as lawmakers have struggled with the best way to regulate the technology industry. Google, like other companies, has long made proposals to conservative groups: the company was a main sponsor of CPAC's conservative conference last year, which caused internal concerns within Google, but this year it did not contribute. While the decision to incorporate James to the board of directors has left some employees furious, reversing the decision could also anger the conservatives who are already critical of the company.
"By naming James as ATEAC, Google raises and supports their views, which implies that theirs is a valid perspective that deserves to be included in their decision-making," reads the employee's letter. "This is unacceptable".