A group of Google employees have called for the removal of a rightwing thinktank leader from the company’s new artificial intelligence council, citing her anti-LGBT and anti-immigrant record.
Employees published a letter on Monday criticizing the appointment of Kay Coles James, president of the Heritage Foundation, to Google’s newly formed advisory council for “the responsible development of AI”.
“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,” the employees wrote in the letter, which was published online and shared internally at the company.
“Such a position directly contravenes Google’s stated values.”
The letter was posted on Medium and said it came from more than 50 Google employees, who remained anonymous. The letter was also signed by more than 30 prominent academics and activists, including Joy Buolamwini, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, Meredith Whittaker, cofounder of the AI Now Institute at NYU, and the author Naomi Klein.
Google faced backlash last week when it announced that James was one of the “diverse perspectives” it was bringing together for a council dedicated to advising on ethical questions related to facial recognition and machine learning. The other seven members included computer science and mathematics experts, a privacy researcher, a drone company chief executive and a former US diplomat.
The company described James as a “public policy expert with extensive experience working at the local, state and federal levels of government”, saying she focuses on “free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom and national defense” at the Heritage Foundation.
James, who was director of the United States Office of Personnel Management under former president George W Bush, has recently fought the Equality Act, a federal anti-discrimination measure, and has taken vocal stance against abortion rights. She has also advocated against basic recognition for trans people.
The Heritage Foundation is an influential Washington DC-based thinktank that has close ties to the Trump administration.
“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,” said the letter by employees..
The letter noted that the “potential harms of AI are not evenly distributed, and follow historical patterns of discrimination and exclusion”. It cited examples of AI that has failed to recognize trans people, does not “hear” more feminine voices and does not “see” women of color.
Research has consistently shown that algorithms, facial recognition and other automated systems can replicate and amplify biases, a growing concern as AI is used in the criminal justice system, education, government surveillance, the financial sector and more.
Employees at Google have increasingly engaged in activism and labor organizing, most notably with massive global walkouts to protest sexual misconduct last year and a worker-led campaign to stop Google building a censored search engine for China.
Google ignored the Guardian’s repeated requests for comment last week, regarding the appointment of James. Spokespeople for the Heritage Foundation and Google did not immediately respond to inquiries about the letter.
The employees also said it was wrong to cite James’ appointment as an example of “diversity of thought”, writing: “This is a weaponization of the language of diversity.
“By appointing James … Google elevates and endorses her views, implying that hers is a valid perspective worthy of inclusion in its decision making.”