This week, thousands of googlers and many others (including me) signed an open letter objecting to the inclusion of Heritage Foundation president Kay Coles James on the company's Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC), on the the grounds that James had frequently evinced viciously transphobic, racist, anti-immigrant sentiments.
ATEAC barely survived a week: the googler protests and high-profile resignations from the board have convinced the company to shut it down.
Here's the company's statement on the shutdown: "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. 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."
Much more compelling is the statement of board member and Oxford philosophy of ethics professor Luciano Floridi: "Asking for [Kay Coles James's] advice was a grave error and sends the wrong message about the nature and goals of the whole ATEAC project. From an ethical perspective, Google has misjudged what it means to have representative views in a broader context. If Mrs. Coles James does not resign, as I hope she does, and if Google does not remove her, as I have personally recommended, the question becomes: what is the right moral stance to take in view of this grave error?"
Google's next stab at external accountability will need to solve those issues. A better board might meet more often and have more stakeholders engaged. It would also publicly and transparently make specific recommendations, and Google would tell us whether they'd followed them, and why.
It's important that Google gets this right. AI capabilities are continuing to advance, leaving most Americans nervous about everything from automation to data privacy to catastrophic accidents with advanced AI systems. Ethics and governance can't be a sideshow for companies like Google, and they'll be under intense scrutiny as they try to navigate the challenges they're creating.
Exclusive: Google cancels AI ethics board in response to outcry [Kelsey Piper/Vox]