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Read Google's AI ethics memo: 'We are not developing AI for use in weapons'

CEO Sundar Pichai says the company will still work with the military though.

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Google CEO Sundar Pichai outlined the company's ethical guidelines surrounding artificial intelligence. 

James Martin / CNET

After Google's own employees protested Project Maven, a Pentagon defense contract that saw the company helping military drones gain the ability to track objects, the company promised it'd issue ethical guidelines about the use of artificial intelligence.

Now, those guidelines are here. 

"We recognize that such powerful technology raises equally powerful questions about its use. How AI is developed and used will have a significant impact on society for many years to come," Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in a blog post Thursday. "As a leader in AI, we feel a deep responsibility to get this right."

Pichai said the company won't develop "technologies that cause or are likely to cause overall harm," weapons designed to harm, surveillance technologies that "violate internationally accepted norms," or technologies that violate "widely accepted principles of international law and human rights."

However, Pichai adds that the company will continue to work with the military, and governments in other areas.

While Pichai lays these out as "principles" as opposed to strict rules, the section of the memo about weapons is titled "AI applications we will not pursue."

The ethics of AI has become a hot button issue that has roiled the company recently. Employees have challenged the company's decision to take part in Maven, an initiative aimed at developing better artificial intelligence for the US military. Googlers were divided over their employer's role in helping develop technology that could be used in warfare. More than 4,000 employees reportedly signed a petition addressed to Pichai demanding the company cancel the project. Last week Google said it wouldn't renew the Maven contract or pursue similar contracts.

Google's new guidelines could set the tone for the way the tech industry handles the development of artificial intelligence going forward. The search giant's stance could also influence how other companies structure their policies on working with the military. 

Pichai has repeatedly said the future of Google is as an "AI-first" company. That philosophy has landed Google in hot water in the past. Last month, Pichai unveiled a new technology called Google Duplex, a stunningly realistic-sounding AI that can book dinner and salon reservations for people over the phone. The software uses verbal tics and pauses, which could trick the person on the other end of the line into thinking the robot is human. 

Critics of the company said it's unethical for the software to operate without identifying itself to the people it interacts with. Google eventually clarified it'd build out the product with clear disclosures

At Google's annual meeting with shareholders on Wednesday, Pichai didn't specifically address these issues, but he did mention the company's responsibility in getting those kinds of things right.

"Technology can be a tremendously positive force," he said. "But it also raises important questions about how we should apply it in the world. We are asking ourselves all those questions."

Here's the whole memo:

AI at Google: our principles

At its heart, AI is computer programming that learns and adapts. It can't solve every problem, but its potential to improve our lives is profound. At Google, we use AI to make products more useful—from email that's spam-free and easier to compose, to a digital assistant you can speak to naturally, to photos that pop the fun stuff out for you to enjoy.

Beyond our products, we're using AI to help people tackle urgent problems. A pair of high school students are building AI-powered sensors to predict the risk of wildfires. Farmers are using it to monitor the health of their herds. Doctors are starting to use AI to help diagnose cancer and prevent blindness. These clear benefits are why Google invests heavily in AI research and development, and makes AI technologies widely available to others via our tools and open-source code.

We recognize that such powerful technology raises equally powerful questions about its use. How AI is developed and used will have a significant impact on society for many years to come. As a leader in AI, we feel a deep responsibility to get this right. So today, we're announcing seven principles to guide our work going forward. These are not theoretical concepts; they are concrete standards that will actively govern our research and product development and will impact our business decisions.

We acknowledge that this area is dynamic and evolving, and we will approach our work with humility, a commitment to internal and external engagement, and a willingness to adapt our approach as we learn over time.

Objectives for AI applications

We will assess AI applications in view of the following objectives. We believe that AI should:

1. Be socially beneficial. 

The expanded reach of new technologies increasingly touch society as a whole. Advances in AI will have transformative impacts in a wide range of fields, including healthcare, security, energy, transportation, manufacturing, and entertainment. As we consider potential development and uses of AI technologies, we will take into account a broad range of social and economic factors, and will proceed where we believe that the overall likely benefits substantially exceed the foreseeable risks and downsides.  

AI also enhances our ability to understand the meaning of content at scale. We will strive to make high-quality and accurate information readily available using AI, while continuing to respect cultural, social, and legal norms in the countries where we operate. And we will continue to thoughtfully evaluate when to make our technologies available on a non-commercial basis.

2. Avoid creating or reinforcing unfair bias.

AI algorithms and datasets can reflect, reinforce, or reduce unfair biases.  We recognize that distinguishing fair from unfair biases is not always simple, and differs across cultures and societies. We will seek to avoid unjust impacts on people, particularly those related to sensitive characteristics such as race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, income, sexual orientation, ability, and political or religious belief.

3. Be built and tested for safety.

We will continue to develop and apply strong safety and security practices to avoid unintended results that create risks of harm.  We will design our AI systems to be appropriately cautious, and seek to develop them in accordance with best practices in AI safety research. In appropriate cases, we will test AI technologies in constrained environments and monitor their operation after deployment.

4. Be accountable to people.

We will design AI systems that provide appropriate opportunities for feedback, relevant explanations, and appeal. Our AI technologies will be subject to appropriate human direction and control.

5. Incorporate privacy design principles.

We will incorporate our privacy principles in the development and use of our AI technologies. We will give opportunity for notice and consent, encourage architectures with privacy safeguards, and provide appropriate transparency and control over the use of data.

6. Uphold high standards of scientific excellence.

Technological innovation is rooted in the scientific method and a commitment to open inquiry, intellectual rigor, integrity, and collaboration. AI tools have the potential to unlock new realms of scientific research and knowledge in critical domains like biology, chemistry, medicine, and environmental sciences. We aspire to high standards of scientific excellence as we work to progress AI development.

We will work with a range of stakeholders to promote thoughtful leadership in this area, drawing on scientifically rigorous and multidisciplinary approaches. And we will responsibly share AI knowledge by publishing educational materials, best practices, and research that enable more people to develop useful AI applications.  

7. Be made available for uses that accord with these principles.  

Many technologies have multiple uses. We will work to limit potentially harmful or abusive applications. As we develop and deploy AI technologies, we will evaluate likely uses in light of the following factors:

  • Primary purpose and use: the primary purpose and likely use of a technology and application, including how closely the solution is related to or adaptable to a harmful use
  • Nature and uniqueness: whether we are making available technology that is unique or more generally available
  • Scale: whether the use of this technology will have significant impact
  • Nature of Google's involvement: whether we are providing general-purpose tools, integrating tools for customers, or developing custom solutions

AI applications we will not pursue

In addition to the above objectives, we will not design or deploy AI in the following application areas:

Technologies that cause or are likely to cause overall harm.  Where there is a material risk of harm, we will proceed only where we believe that the benefits substantially outweigh the risks, and will incorporate appropriate safety constraints.

Weapons or other technologies whose principal purpose or implementation is to cause or directly facilitate injury to people.

Technologies that gather or use information for surveillance violating internationally accepted norms.

Technologies whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.

We want to be clear that while we are not developing AI for use in weapons, we will continue our work with governments and the military in many other areas. These include cybersecurity, training, military recruitment, veterans' healthcare, and search and rescue. These collaborations are important and we'll actively look for more ways to augment the critical work of these organizations and keep service members and civilians safe.

AI for the long term

While this is how we're choosing to approach AI, we understand there is room for many voices in this conversation. As AI technologies progress, we'll work with a range of stakeholders to promote thoughtful leadership in this area, drawing on scientifically rigorous and multidisciplinary approaches. And we will continue to share what we've learned to improve AI technologies and practices.

We believe these principles are the right foundation for our company and the future development of AI. This approach is consistent with the values laid out in our original Founders' Letter back in 2004. There we made clear our intention to take a long-term perspective, even if it means making short-term tradeoffs. We said it then, and we believe it now.

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