Google is cancelling its newly announced artificial intelligence ethics council in the wake of internal and external protest and "going back to the drawing board" on how to get outside input as it develops advanced technologies.
The group, an eight-person committee, had faced criticism since its inception. Ethics in artificial intelligence has become an increasingly important topic as the technology becomes integrated into products like recruiting tools, automatic background checks and surveillance systems, but both employees and outside experts questioned the board's inaugural members.
On Monday, Google employees began circulating a petition calling for the company to remove Kay Coles James, the president of conservative think-tank the Heritage Foundation, from the council, citing her anti-LGBTQ views and stance on immigration. More than 2,350 Google employees signed the letter, as did about 300 other people, including artificial intelligence researchers and members of AI-related organizations like the Algorithmic Justice League.
The petition blasted Google for defending James' as providing "diversity of thought" to the council, and said that her inclusion "significantly undermines Google’s position on AI ethics and fairness" because marginalized groups, like LGBTQ people or immigrants, are are greater risk of discrimination or exclusion by AI systems.
The public letter followed the resignation of information technology and public policy professor Alessandro Acquisti over the weekend, who said that he no longer believed it was the "right forum" for him. Another member, digital ethics professor Luciano Floridi, posted on Facebook Wednesday that although he didn't plan to resign, he recommended that Google remove James from the council.
Dyan Gibbens, CEO of a drone technology company who previously worked on drones for the U.S. military and another member of the committee, received scrutiny too. As a backdrop, Google decided last year not renew a controversial contract with the Pentagon to use AI to analyze drone footage after thousands of employees protested against the company becoming involved in the "business of war."
Google said Thursday that it would shut-down the council, as first reported by Vox.
"It’s become clear that in the current environment, [the Advanced Technology External Advisory Council] can’t function as we wanted," a Google spokesperson told Forbes in a statement. "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."
Google had planned to meet with the group four times in 2019 and publish a report summarizing its discussions afterwards.
The group of organizers who put together the petition against James thanked supporters on Twitter for the "unwillingness to compromise on hate."
Google wasn't the only company called out this week regarding ethics in artificial intelligence. A group of AI experts published an open letter to Amazon on Wednesday urging it to stop selling its facial-recognition technology to law enforcement because researchers had found that its system had higher error rates classifying women of color than light-skinned men.
"There are no laws or required standards to ensure that Rekognition is used in a manner that does not infringe on civil liberties," the group wrote.
Although there have been calls to regulate artificial intelligence, no such rules have yet been made.