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Google employees are calling for the removal of a conservative think tank president from the company’s AI advisory council

Critics are alleging that Heritage Foundation President Kay Cole James has made anti-trans statements.

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Google’s office in London.
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Shirin Ghaffary is a senior Vox correspondent covering the social media industry. Previously, Ghaffary worked at BuzzFeed News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and TechCrunch.

Google employees released a letter today calling for Kay Cole James, the president of right-wing think tank the Heritage Foundation, to be removed from Google’s new external AI ethics council.

The letter calls James “vocally anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-immigrant,” and that “Google cannot claim to support trans people and its trans employees — a population that faces real and material threats — and simultaneously appoint someone committed to trans erasure to a key AI advisory position.”

Update: As of Tuesday 10:46 am ET, 1,340 Google employees have signed the letter, according to organizers of the petition.

Around the time of its release, the letter had signatures from 16 Google employees and around 40 others, including academics at institutions such as Stanford, Harvard, and NYU. It’s another point of contention over Google’s new Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC), which has been mired in controversy since it was announced last week. Four days after the council was announced, one of the eight leading academics named as an inaugural member, Alessandro Acquisti, tweeted that he declined the invitation to be on the council. It’s unclear if Acquisti had changed his mind since the announcement or if he had initially turned Google down.

Google and the Heritage Foundation could not be immediately reached for comment.

Earlier this month, in speaking about the UN Commission on the Status of Women, James tweeted that “powerful nations are pressing for the radical redefining of sex” and that “[i]f they can change the definition of women to include men, they can erase efforts to empower women economically, socially, and politically.” The Heritage Foundation, which James represents, has long advocated against LGBTQ and trans rights. In the past, the organization and its affiliates have supported arguments that gay marriage could lead to increased abortions, decreased monogamy, and even group marriage.

According to the letter, the person who appointed James to the board has defended the company’s position by saying that James “was on the council to ensure ‘diversity of thought,’” a concept that signees take issue with.

Part of the reason for Google’s creation of the council was to help reduce unfair bias in its AI, a key concern for civil liberties advocates. AI has been proven to reflect the same prejudices baked into the test data sets that feed its algorithms. This has resulted, for example, in voice recognition software that doesn’t recognize accents and facial recognition that more often mismatches people of color.

Full text of the letter below:

Google must remove Kay Cole James from its Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC).

On March 27, four days before Trans Day of Visibility, Google announced the members of its Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC), which is tasked with informing the company’s decisions around AI and other technologies. Among those appointed to ATEAC is Kay Coles James, the President of the Heritage Foundation, who is vocally anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-immigrant.

Her record speaks for itself — over, and over, and over again.

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. Such a position directly contravenes Google’s stated values. Many have emphasized this publicly, and a professor appointed to ATEAC has already resigned in the wake of the controversy.

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.” This is a weaponization of the language of diversity. By appointing James to the ATEAC, Google elevates and endorses her views, implying that hers is a valid perspective worthy of inclusion in its decision making. This is unacceptable.

Appointing James to ATEAC also significantly undermines Google’s position on AI ethics and fairness. 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.

Google cannot claim to support trans people and its trans employees — a population that faces real and material threats — and simultaneously appoint someone committed to trans erasure to a key AI advisory position. Given this, we call on Google to remove Kay Coles James from ATEAC.

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