Google told its scientists to ‘strike a positive tone’ in AI research

Google

Google this year moved to tighten control over its scientists’ papers by launching a “sensitive topics” review, and in at least three cases requested authors refrain from casting its technology in a negative light, according to internal communications and interviews with researchers involved in the work.

“Advances in technology and the growing complexity of our outside environment are increasingly leading to situations where seemingly inoffensive jobs raise moral, reputational, regulatory or legal problems,” one of the pages for research staff stated.

Google declined to comment for this story.

The “sensitive topics” process adds a round of scrutiny to Google’s standard review of papers for pitfalls such as disclosing of trade secrets, eight current and former employees said.

For some projects, Google officials have intervened in later stages. A senior Google manager reviewing a study on content recommendation technology shortly before publication this summer told authors to “take excellent care to strike a favourable tone,” according to internal correspondence read to journalists at our partner Thomson Reuters.

The manager added ,”This doesn’t mean we should hide from the actual challenges” posed by the software.

Subsequent correspondence from a researcher to reviewers shows authors “upgraded to remove all references to Google products.”

Four staff researchers, including senior scientist Margaret Mitchell, said they believe Google is starting to interfere with crucial studies of potential technology harms.

“If we are researching the appropriate thing given our expertise, and we aren’t allowed to publish this on grounds that aren’t in line with high-quality peer review, then we’re becoming a serious problem of censorship,” Mitchell said.

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Google states on its public-facing website that its scientists have “substantial” freedom.

Tensions between Google and some of its staff broke into view this month after the abrupt exit of scientist Timnit Gebru, who led a 12-person team with Mitchell focused on ethics in artificial intelligence software (AI).

Gebru says Google fired her after she questioned an order not to publish research claiming AI that mimics speech could disadvantage marginalized populations. Google said it accepted and expedited her resignation. It could not be determined whether Gebru’s paper underwent a “sensitive topics” review.

Google Senior Vice President Jeff Dean said in a statement this month that Gebru’s paper dwelled on potential harms without discussing efforts underway to address them.

Dean added that Google supports AI ethics scholarship and is “actively working on enhancing our newspaper inspection procedures, because we understand that too many checks and balances can get cumbersome.”

‘SENSITIVE TOPICS’

The explosion in research and development of AI across the tech industry has prompted authorities in the United States and elsewhere to propose rules for its use. Some have cited scientific studies showing that facial analysis software and other AI can perpetuate biases or erode privacy.

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Google in recent years incorporated AI throughout its services, using the technology to interpret complex search queries, decide recommendations on YouTube and autocomplete sentences in Gmail. Its researchers published more than 200 papers in the last year about developing AI responsibly, among more than 1,000 projects in total, Dean said.

Studying Google services for biases is among the “sensitive topics” under the company’s new policy, according to an internal webpage. Among dozens of other “sensitive topics” listed were the oil industry, China, Iran, Israel, COVID-19, home security, insurance, location data, religion, self-driving vehicles, telecoms and systems that recommend or personalize web content.

The Google paper for which authors were told to strike a positive tone discusses recommendation AI, which services like YouTube employ to personalize users’ content feeds. A draft reviewed by journalists at our partner news agency Reuters included “concerns” this technology can promote “disinformation, discriminatory or otherwise unfair results” and “insufficient diversity of content,” as well as lead to “political polarization.”

The last publication instead says the systems can promote “accurate information, fairness, and diversity of content.” The published version, entitled “What are you optimizing for? Aligning Recommender Systems with Human Values,” omitted charge to Google researchers. Journalists could not determine why.

A paper this month on AI for understanding a foreign language softened a mention of how the Google Translate merchandise was making errors following a petition from company reviewers, a source said. The printed version states the authors used Google Translate, and a separate sentence says part of this study method was to “review and fix inaccurate translations.”

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For a paper released last week, a Google employee described the procedure as a “long-haul,” involving more than 100 email exchanges between reviewers and researchers, according to the internal correspondence.

The researchers found that AI can cough up personal data and copyrighted material – including a webpage in the “Harry Potter” novel – that was pulled from the world wide web to come up with the machine.

A draft clarified how such disclosures could induce copyrights or violate European privacy legislation, a individual familiar with the matter said. Following company reviews, authors removed the legal dangers, and Google published the paper.

The team at Platform Executive hope you have enjoyed this news article. Initial reporting via our official content partners at Thomson Reuters. Reporting by Paresh Dave and Jeffrey Dastin. Editing by Jonathan Weber and Edward Tobin.

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