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Google employees urge removal of AI council member for alleged anti-trans views

The new council, set up to get input on AI issues from outside experts, is already in turmoil.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
2 min read

Google's new council of outside AI experts is under turmoil.

James Martin/CNET

Google's newly-formed external council for artificial intelligence ethics is facing blowback.

Last week, the company announced a group of outside experts had been chosen to guide its work in controversial AI projects, including thorny issues like facial recognition and bias in machine learning. But the council has stoked controversy after some accused one member, Heritage Foundation President Kay Cole James, of being "anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-immigrant."

On Monday, a group of employees called Googlers Against Transphobia and Hate published a petition demanding James be removed from the group.

"In selecting James, Google is making clear that its version of 'ethics' values proximity to power over the wellbeing of trans people, other LGBTQ people, and immigrants," the petition says. "Such a position directly contravenes Google's stated values."

The petition was signed by more than 500 Google employees as of this writing. It also includes signatures from academic and industry supporters.

James and Google didn't respond to requests for comment.

Alessandro Acquisti, a behavioral economist and privacy researcher, has already said he declined an invitation to join the council.

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"While I'm devoted to research grappling with key ethical issues of fairness, rights & inclusion in AI, I don't believe this is the right forum for me to engage in this important work," he wrote on Twitter. Acquisti declined to comment further.   

Google's work in AI has drawn scrutiny before by employees. Last summer, they revolted against the company's work on Project Maven, a contract signed with the Pentagon to help develop AI for the analysis of drone footage. In response to the protest, Google said it wouldn't renew the contract. 

Shortly after the outcry, Google CEO Sundar Pichai released ethical guidelines for the company to follow as it creates AI technology. Those guidelines include vows to never develop AI for weaponry and to only create technologies that are "socially beneficial," though Google didn't rule out working with the military.  

The search giant's AI projects have also been criticized by the government. General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last month that Google's AI work in China is "indirectly benefiting the Chinese military." Pichai ended up meeting with President Donald Trump last week to discuss the company's relationship with China.