The Challenges of Google’s AI Ethics Watchdog

When Google CEO Sundar Pichai outlined the company priorities for 2024, responsible development of AI took the top spot. However, recent changes within Google’s internal AI ethics watchdog, known as RESIN (Responsible Innovation), have left employees questioning whether Google can uphold this goal. This article examines the restructuring of RESIN and the implications it may have for Google’s commitment to responsible AI development.

RESIN, situated within the Office of Compliance and Integrity in Google’s global affairs division, played a critical role in reviewing internal projects for compliance with Google’s AI principles. However, the sudden departure of RESIN’s leader and founder, Jen Gennai, as director of responsible innovation has raised concerns. Gennai’s LinkedIn profile indicates that she may soon leave the company, reflecting a pattern observed in past departures from Google. Following Gennai’s exit, Google decided to split RESIN’s team into two, with some members remaining in place and others being transferred to trust and safety, a division responsible for combating abuse of Google services. While it is unclear how responsibilities will be divided and AI principles reviews will be conducted in the future, Brian Gabriel, a company spokesperson, affirms that Google’s commitment to responsible AI development remains intact.

Although Google frequently reorganizes its teams, RESIN had previously remained relatively untouched since its inception. As the most prominent team responsible for AI oversight, RESIN’s restructuring and the departure of key members, like Sara Tangdall, raise questions about the future of responsible AI at Google. Tangdall, an influential member of RESIN, has since transitioned to become the responsible AI product director at Salesforce. The changes within RESIN have left employees uncertain about the handling of AI principles reviews moving forward.

Google established the Responsible Innovation team in 2018 amid public protests by AI experts and Google employees against Project Maven, a Pentagon contract utilizing Google algorithms for drone surveillance analysis. RESIN became the lead guardian of a set of AI principles created in response to the protests, emphasizing the use of AI for the benefit of humanity rather than for weaponry or human rights violations. Jen Gennai, one of RESIN’s founders, played a role in authoring these principles, which guided Google’s internal projects. RESIN’s involvement ensured that AI image generators and voice synthesis algorithms, capable of producing deepfakes, were not released. While seeking AI principles guidance is not mandatory for most teams, early reviews help prevent ethical breaches and improve the overall quality and ethical standards of Google’s products.

Despite the internal changes and uncertainties surrounding RESIN, Google maintains a commitment to responsible AI development. By integrating RESIN’s work into the well-established trust and safety efforts, Google aims to enhance and expand responsible innovation throughout the company. Brian Gabriel emphasizes that this shakeup signifies Google’s dedication to addressing the ethical implications of AI by incorporating responsibility into all product reviews and plans.

Google’s AI ethics watchdog, RESIN, faces challenges following the departure of its leader and subsequent restructuring. While it remains unclear how the responsibilities and reviews will be handled within the team, Google affirms its commitment to responsible AI development. However, the changes within RESIN have left employees questioning whether Google can live up to its goal of developing AI responsibly. As AI continues to shape various aspects of modern life, it becomes crucial for technology companies like Google to navigate the ethical challenges that accompany its development.

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