Googlers Against Transphobia Call For Removal of Heritage Foundation President From AI Board
Photo Credit: Google staff walk out from Google headquarters, over women's treatment, London on November 1, 2018. Staff at Google offices around the world are staging an unprecedented series of walkouts in protest at the company's treatment of women. Google chief executive Sundar Pichai has told staff he supports their right to take the action. (Photo by Alberto Pezzali/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Googlers Against Transphobia Call For Removal of Heritage Foundation President From AI Board

Last week, Google announced a new external advisory board to to ensure the company works towards “responsible” AI development. People quickly honed in on one board addition: Kay Coles James, president of the conservative think-tank, the Heritage Foundation.

Now, over 1,200 Googlers — along with academic, civil society, and industry supporters — have signed a petition calling for James’ removal, citing her transphobia, homophobia, and anti-immigrant positions as cause.

“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,” Googlers Against Transphobia and Hate wrote in a Medium post.

Noting that the person who took credit for James’ appointment claimed it was to ensure “diversity of thought,” the group added:

“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.”
The group’s statement of AI’s potential harm being unevenly distributed are well-documented. AI is only giving old violence a digital upgrade. It’s apparent in cases like AI not recognizing trans people,  Amazon Rekognition being peddled to ICE, and a landlord planning to implement facial recognition tech in a low-income building.

James’ record of transmisogynistic and anti-immigrant remarks are well documented. In March, James tweeted against the Equality Act and referred to trans women as “biological males.” James also tweeted that the Heritage Foundation “will critique gender identity,” adding that powerful nations were changing “the definition of women to include men.”

In response to President Donald Trump’s highly controversial national emergency, Cole tweeted, “We have a crisis at our border: thousands of illegal aliens, dangerous criminals, drug smugglers and sex traffickers crossing the border every day.”

This type of rhetoric is dangerous on its own, but increasingly alarming when remembering that some AI development already harms the same communities James mentions in her rhetoric.
“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,” Googlers Against Transphobia wrote. “Such a project should instead place representatives from vulnerable communities at the center of decision-making.”
This weekend, one member of the council, Alessandro Acquisti, shared that he declined his invitation to join. Acquisti tweeted, “While I’m devoted to research grappling with key ethical issues of fairness, rights & inclusion in AI, I don’t believe this is the right forum for me to engage in this important work.”
Acquisti did not confirm if his decision was directly inspired by the petition.

Although the petition specifically calls for James’ removal, it’s important to remember that the issue is deeper than her alone. Google deciding it was wise to appoint James— and a drone CEO, despite the company’s own shaky drone history — shows it is not concerned with responsibility.
Social inequalities do not have to be built into tech, but that is often what occurs. As Google demonstrates, tech companies cannot be trusted to regulate themselves, and it’s absurd that an entire industry is allowed to.
The projects that these companies develop impact people well outside of the tech world, so their boards should be made up of people outside of tech and academia.
Until that happens, these boards are largely public image projects, and it’s unlikely that they will lead to any substantive change.