Google employees demand removal of AI-ethics council member

Hundreds of Google employees are demanding the company remove the president of conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation from a newly formed council meant to advise the company on the responsible usage of artificial intelligence.

A group of employees calling itself Googlers Against Transphobia said in a post to the website Medium on Monday that by appointing Heritage’s president Kay Coles James to the council, Google is “making clear that its version of ‘ethics’ values proximity to power over the wellbeing of trans people, other LGBTQ people, and immigrants.”

Heritage has openly opposed LGBT rights. And the group of Google employees pointed out several recent Twitter posts where James criticized proposed federal legislation such as the Equality Act, which aims to halt discrimination based on gender identity, sex and sexual orientation. On Twitter, James called the bill “anything but equality” and said it would “open every female bathroom and sports team to biological males.”

Google announced on March 26 the formation of the Advanced Technology External Advisory Council, which will consult with Google about major issues in AI such as facial recognition and fairness. In a blog post at the time, Kent Walker, Google’s senior vice president of global affairs, said the council will “provide diverse perspectives” to the company.

The council, which includes a number of members who work at the intersection of AI and ethics, is Google’s latest effort at self-governing the rapidly growing field of AI. While there’s no national legislation specifically related to how AI can and can’t be used, some companies such as Microsoft and Amazon are in favor of the passage of rules related to particular applications of AI (such as facial-recognition technology).

Shortly after Google announced the council, Carnegie Mellon University professor Alessandro Acquisti said he was declining an invitation to join the group. He said on Twitter on Saturday that while he is devoted to fairness and other AI issues, he doesn’t believe it is “the right forum” for him.

By midday on Monday, Googlers Against Transphobia said that more than 900 Google employees and dozens of others — including a range of academic researchers, activists and tech industry employees — had added themselves to a list of supporters.

This isn’t the first time Google has faced pushback from employees on topics related to artificial intelligence. In 2018, 4,000 employees signed a petition demanding the company refrain from building technology that can be used for warfare after learning about a controversial contract the company had for the Pentagon’s Project Maven program, which uses AI to enhance drone strikes. Google subsequently said it wouldn’t renew its contract, which ended in March.

One of the Googlers Against Transphobia organizers, a Google engineer who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, told CNN Business that the company’s decision to appoint James to the group was frustrating.

“I don’t want to call myself angry, personally, but very disappointed,” said the employee, whose identity was verified by CNN Business. “I used to really feel that Google had the backs of trans employees, and things like this are really calling that into question.”

Neither Google nor Heritage responded to a request from CNN Business for comment.