Google Splits Up a Key AI Ethics Watchdog

When Google CEO Sundar Pichai emailed his workers the company priorities for 2024 this month, developing AI responsibly was top of the list. Some employees now wonder whether Google can live up to that goal. The small team that has served as its primary internal AI ethics watchdog has lost its leader and is being restructured, according to four people familiar with the changes. A Google spokesperson says its work will continue in a stronger form going forward, but declines to provide details.

Google’s Responsible Innovation team, known as RESIN, was located inside the Office of Compliance and Integrity, in the company’s global affairs division. It reviewed internal projects for compatibility with Google’s AI principles that define rules for development and use of the technology, a crucial role as the company races to compete in generative AI. RESIN conducted over 500 reviews last year, including for the Bard chatbot, according to an annual report on AI principles work Google published this month.

RESIN’s role has looked uncertain since its leader and founder Jen Gennai, director of responsible innovation, suddenly left that role this month, say the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel changes. Gennai’s LinkedIn profile lists her as an AI ethics and compliance adviser at Google as of this month, which sources say suggests she will soon leave based on how past departures from the company played out.

Google split Gennai’s team of about 30 people into two. Some will remain in place while others were transferred to trust and safety, which fights abuse of Google services and also resides in the global affairs division. No one appears to have been laid off, sources say. The rationale for the changes and how responsibilities will be broken up couldn’t be learned. Some of the sources say they have not been told how AI principles reviews will be handled going forward.

Company spokesperson Brian Gabriel declines to say how RESIN’s work reviewing AI projects will be handled in the future but describes the shakeup as a signal of Google’s commitment to responsible AI development. The move “brought this particular Responsible AI team to the center of our well-established trust and safety efforts, which are baked into our product reviews and plans,” he says. “It will help us strengthen and scale our responsible innovation work across the company.”

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Google is known for frequently reshuffling its ranks but RESIN had largely been untouched since the group’s founding. Though other teams, and hundreds of additional people, work on AI oversight at Google, RESIN was the most prominent, with a remit covering all Google’s core services.

In addition to the departure of its leader, Gennai, RESIN also saw one of its most influential members, Sara Tangdall, lead AI principles ethics specialist, leave this month. She is now responsible AI product director at Salesforce, according to her LinkedIn profile. Tangdall declined to comment and Gennai didn’t respond to calls for comment.

AI Uprising

Google created its Responsible Innovation team in 2018 not long after AI experts and others at the company publicly rose up in protest against a Pentagon contract called Project Maven that used Google algorithms to analyze drone surveillance imagery. RESIN became the core steward of a set of AI principles introduced after the protests, which say Google will use AI to benefit people, and never for weapons or undermining human rights. Gennai helped author the principles.

Teams from across Google could submit projects for review by RESIN which provided feedback and sometimes blocked ideas seen as breaching the AI principles. The group stopped the release of AI image generators and voice synthesis algorithms that could be used to create deepfakes.

Seeking AI principles guidance is not mandatory for most teams, unlike reviews for privacy risks, which every project must undergo. But Gennai has said early reviews of AI systems pay off by preventing costly ethical breaches. “If implemented properly, Responsible AI makes products better by uncovering and working to reduce the harm that unfair bias can cause, improving transparency and increasing security,” she said during a Google conference in 2022.