Google CEO says internal rancor over AI due to transparency

Alphabet Inc Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai said employee dissent about Google’s artificial intelligence work seems intense because the company is so transparent.

“Part of the reason you see a lot of debate, I mean, we engage as a company,” Pichai said Thursday during a World Economic Forum discussion. “We are a lot more transparent than most other companies, and so you do see us in the middle of these issues. I take it as a sign that we allow for debate to happen around this area and we need to get better as a company. We are committed to doing so.”

In December, Timnit Gebru, a researcher best known for showing how facial recognition algorithms are better at identifying White people than Black people, left Google in a storm of controversy. She has said she was fired after the company demanded she retract a research paper she co-authored that questioned an AI technology at the heart of Google’s search engine. The company has said she resigned. Close to 2,700 Googlers and more than 4,300 academics and civil society supporters signed a petition in favor of Gebru. Pichai emailed an apology to employees and said he is investigating the incident.

The CEO said Thursday that listening to staff is an important part of Google’s culture and he wants to work with employee groups on sustainability and diversity and inclusion efforts.

Google is being targeted by regulators from the European Union to Australia to the US on issues such as antitrust and whether the company should pay publishers for news. While the company is fighting many of these efforts, Pichai said he hopes to see more regulation in some areas, including an international accord on AI safety and quantum computing and guidance from governments on content moderation and free speech online.

Digital misinformation “is bigger than any single company,” he said. “It is here to stay. As a society, we need to develop the next set of frameworks for us to function through that. That’s the debate we’re in the middle of.”

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