Google and Ethics: Shaken and Stirred Up

June 17, 2021

Despite recent controversies, Vox Recode reports, “Google Says it’s Committed to Ethical AI Research. Its Ethical AI Team Isn’t So Sure.” In fact, it sounds like there is a lot of uncertainty for the department whose immediate leaders have not been replaced since they were ousted and who reportedly receive little guidance or information from the higher-ups. Reporter Shirin Ghaffary writes:

“Some current members of Google’s tightly knit ethical AI group told Recode the reality is different from the one Google executives are publicly presenting. The 10-person group, which studies how artificial intelligence impacts society, is a subdivision of Google’s broader new responsible AI organization. They say the team has been in a state of limbo for months, and that they have serious doubts company leaders can rebuild credibility in the academic community — or that they will listen to the group’s ideas. Google has yet to hire replacements for the two former leaders of the team. Many members convene daily in a private messaging group to support each other and discuss leadership, manage themselves on an ad-hoc basis, and seek guidance from their former bosses. Some are considering leaving to work at other tech companies or to return to academia, and say their colleagues are thinking of doing the same.”

See the article for more of the frustrations facing Google’s remaining AI ethics researchers. The loss of these workers would not be good for the company, which relies on the department to lend a veneer of responsibility to its algorithmic initiatives. Right now, though, Google seems more interested in plowing ahead with its projects than in taking its own researchers, or their work, seriously. Its reputation in the academic community has tanked, we are told. A petition signed by thousands of computer science instructors and researchers called Gebru’s firing “unprecedented research censorship,” a prominent researcher and diversity activists are rejecting Google funding, a Google-run workshop was boycotted by prospective speakers, and the AI ethics research conference FAccT suspended the company’s membership. Meanwhile, Ghaffary reports, at least four employees have resigned and given Gebru’s treatment as the reason. Other concerned employees are taking the opposite approach, staying on in the hope they can make a difference. As one unnamed researcher states:

“Google is so powerful and has so much opportunity. It’s working on so much cutting-edge AI research. It feels irresponsible for no one who cares about ethics to be here.”

We agree, but there is only so much mid-level employees can do. When will Google executives begin to care about developing AI programs conscientiously? When regulators somehow make it more expensive to ignore ethics concerns than to embrace them, we suspect. We will not hold our breath.

Cynthia Murrell, June 17, 2021

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