Google is under fire from employees, tech experts, and members of the LGBTQ community for appointing Kay Coles James, president of the right-wing think tank the Heritage Foundation, to the company's new ethics advisory board for artificial intelligence.
"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."
An open petition launched by Google employees Monday—which has garnered more than 800 signatures—decries James as "vocally anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-immigrant." It demands her immediate dismissal from Google's Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC), which weighs in on the "responsible development" of artificial intelligence, or AI.
Kent Walker, Google's senior vice president for global affairs, announced the formation of ATEAC and the council's members in a blog post last week.
"This group will consider some of Google's most complex challenges that arise under our AI Principles," Walker explained, "like facial recognition and fairness in machine learning, providing diverse perspectives to inform our work."
Google's stated AI Principles, unveiled last year, include the objectives to "be socially beneficial" and "avoid creating or reinforcing unfair bias." The company also vows to not pursue technologies that cause or are likely to cause harm, or "whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights."
The potential harms of AI are not evenly distributed, and follow historical patterns of discrimination and exclusion. From AI that doesn't recognize trans people, doesn't "hear" more feminine voices, and doesn't "see" women of color, to AI used to enhance police surveillance, profile immigrants, and automate weapons — those who are most marginalized are most at risk. Not only are James' views counter to Google's stated values, but they are directly counter to the project of ensuring that the development and application of AI prioritizes justice over profit. Such a project should instead place representatives from vulnerable communities at the center of decision-making.
According to Googlers Against Transphobia, the group of employees that launched the petition, "Following the announcement, the person who took credit for appointing James stood by the decision, saying that James was on the council to ensure 'diversity of thought.'"
Meanwhile, many employees were "livid." As The Verge reported Monday:
On internal message boards, employees described James as "intolerant" and the Heritage Foundation as "amazingly wrong" in their policies on topics like climate change, immigration, and, particularly, on issues of LGBTQ equality. A person with James' views, the employees said, "doesn't deserve a Google-legitimized platform, and certainly doesn't belong in any conversation about how Google tech should be applied to the world."
The conversations turned heated and intensely critical, both of James and of Google leadership, according to sources. Employees criticized Google's inclusion of James as "horribly negligent or outright malicious" and cited a recent tweet from her on how "powerful nations" were pushing "the radical redefining of sex." Heritage recently hosted a panel of anti-transgender activists, and it has lobbied against LGBTQ discrimination protections proposed by congressional Democrats. The foundation did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Founded in 1973, the Heritage Foundation rose to national prominence during Ronald Reagan's presidency and is known today for the role it has played in staffing the government with right-wingers under President Donald Trump's administration.
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"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," declares the petition, which notes that Google's announcement came just days before International Transgender Day of Visibility on Sunday. "Her record speaks for itself — over, and over, and over again."
— Evan Greer (@evan_greer) April 1, 2019
This is far from the first time Google workers have spoken out against their employer. Last year, as Google ditched its longtime unofficial motto "don't be evil," company employees signed another petition calling on Google to end its involvement in a Pentagon program called Project Maven, spoke out against Google's efforts to build a censored search engine for China, and staged a global walkout to demand an end to workplace harassment and inequality.
Google employees, LGBTQ people, reporters, and activists turned to Twitter Monday to demand that the tech giant remove James from its AI ethics council:
Sign our petition echoing Google employees demands. Tell @Kent_Walker and Google leadership not to put the President of the xenophobic, anti-LGBTQ Heritage Foundation on their AI ethics advisory council: https://t.co/CgQK31R04R
— Fight for the Future (@fightfortheftr) April 1, 2019
— Google Walkout For Real Change (@GoogleWalkout) April 1, 2019
Co-sign. Google's so-called advisory council is ethically bankrupt as long as Kay Coles James has any part in it. https://t.co/xO6wb6fIc2
— Ashleigh R (@Technicalleigh) April 1, 2019
Notable: signatories of Googlers Against Transphobia petition to remove Kay Coles James from ATEAC include a number of prominent AI experts including Meredith Whitaker at AI Now Institute and Safiya Umoja Noble, https://t.co/ALDfpQWse1
— Tonya Riley (@TonyaJoRiley) April 1, 2019
Google workers are fighting on yet another front today, for a world where AI ethics are guided by affected communities instead of influential voices of hate. We stand in solidarity with them, as we always will.
— Tech Workers Coalition (@techworkersco) April 1, 2019
— Amelia Archer (@aarcher510) April 1, 2019
Please read this and consider adding your support. I'm proud to be one of the 300+ Googlers who have signed. https://t.co/3gkrGPLFgb
— Ben Bleything (@bleything) April 1, 2019