Google has come under fire for appointing a conservative ex-White House staffer, Kay Coles James, to its new artificial intelligence (AI) ethics board.

James is one of eight members set to join Google’s new external advisory board, which the search giant says will “help advance the responsible development of AI.”



“This group will consider some of Google’s most complex challenges that arise under our AI principles, like facial recognition and fairness in machine learning, providing diverse perspectives to inform our work,” said Google’s vice president of global affairs, Kent Walker, in a statement published on Tuesday (March 26).

Twitter users immediately took Google to task over James’ place on the panel, noting that she has previously expressed anti-trans views on the social network.

Donald Trump sat next to Kay Coles James
Donald Trump meets with Kay Coles James (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

One person wrote: “Hey @Google exactly what do you hope to get out of a responsibility advisor who hates trans people, foreigners, and the environment, just wondering.”

Another person reacted: “Ummm, really ? You’re appointing someone to advise you on “responsibility” who heads one of the most disgustingly homophobic, transphobic, anti- organizations in the country?”

Another Twitter user commented: “I don’t want libertarian values driving AI policy. Also, unfortunately has made deeply transphobic comments publicly.”

Just last week, on March 21, James tweeted that the US Equality Act “would open every female bathroom and sports team to biological males.”

A day earlier, speaking about the UN Commission on the Status of Women, she wrote: “If they can change the definition of women to include men, they can erase efforts to empower women economically, socially, and politically.”

Google AI board member chimes in

Joanna J Bryson, another member of Google’s AI ethics board, tweeted in response to a question about James: “Believe it or not, I know worse about one of the other people.”

She added: “I know that I have pushed [Google] before on some of their associations, and they say they need diversity in order to be convincing to society broadly, e.g. the GOP.”

“Believe it or not, I know worse about one of the other people.”

— Joanna J Bryson, member of Google’s AI ethics board

James is president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington DC.

Previously, she served in the White Houses of both George W Bush and his father, the late George HW Bush.

The 69-year-old regularly tweets in support of Donald Trump and has given her backing to his controversial border wall plans.

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“Thousands of illegal aliens, dangerous criminals, drug smugglers and sex traffickers [are] crossing the border every day,” she once tweeted.

James will serve on the board throughout 2019. It will meet four times this year, beginning in April.

Artificial Intelligence shows bias

Google has created the advisory board in an attempt to stave off controversy after a series of AI mis-fires—both by the search giant and its competitors.

In October 2017, Google attracted criticism after a piece of language software was found to give negative scores to phrases such as “I’m homosexual,” “gay bar” and “gay people”.

Amazon, one of Google’s largest competitors, was called out for prejudice by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in June 2018.

Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google
Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google (Carsten Koall/Getty)

The ACLU found that Amazon’s facial recognition—which can identify if people have been arrested for a crime—was disproportionally biased against people of colour.

Amazon was also forced to scrap development of an AI recruitment tool after it taught itself to downgrade CVs including the word “women’s.”

Much has been said of the need for AI to be taught using a diverse set of data in order for it to serve minority communities properly.

In the future, AI could be used to unlock bathroom doors, gain access to buildings and will almost certainly be used in hospitals.




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