At the end of March, Google announced that it was creating a board to help the tech giant navigate the ethics of developing artificial intelligence (AI). This board was called the Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC) and pulled together eight panelists representing a broad spectrum of expertise.
According to Google’s announcement, the board was to meet four times over the course of 2019 and discuss “complex challenges” that come from the increasing ubiquity of AI like facial recognition and fairness in machine learning, whether or not the company should work on military applications of AI, and how AI might perpetuate economic disparity worldwide.
The council has already been disbanded.
The board’s quick disintegration comes not from its conflicting ethical ideas regarding AI, but rather furor over the politics of the board members themselves.
It turns out that it was disbanded because of who was on the panel, not really what actually happened once the council convened.
One member, Kay Cole James, has a history of making controversial statements about immigrants and the trans community in her position as the President of the Heritage Foundation. Thousands of Google employees petitioned against her inclusion on the high-profile board.
Another board member that employees rejected was Dyan Gibbens the CEO of Trumball, a company that specializes in drones used by the military (or as Google put it “automation…[ in] resilience in energy and defense.”)
These two members in particular were chosen for the ATEAC in order to bring diversity of thought, but their presence seemingly just brought external drama. When other members were asked by the public whether they thought James’ inclusion on an ethical board was… well, ethical… instead of falling into rank and file, Joanna Bryson replied that she knew even worse information about another (unnamed) board member.
The ATEAC immediately began to lose members and n April 4th, Google announced, “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.”
If you put the differing ideologies of its members aside, having only four meetings over the course of the year didn’t really give the organization a lot of time to deeply engage with the weighty topics it was supposed to cover. And, as Vox astutely observes, its unpaid members could only come from a very rarified pool of already wealthy candidates.
This effectively ended the whole hullabaloo, but it begs the question: How exactly was the ATEAC supposed to function?