Eric Schmidt, former CEO and chairman of Google, has donated money to Stanford University, and taught at its business school. But a group of current and former Google employees, academics, and human rights activists wants the university to cancel a talk he is scheduled to give next month at a conference on ethics and artificial intelligence. They say Schmidt is a poor ethical role model.
In a letter to the conference organizers, the group says Schmidt’s appearance would be inappropriate given “serious and credible” questions over his ethical conduct. Their petition was publicly released Tuesday with more than 40 signatories, including 20 current Google employees, but first sent to Stanford Sunday.
Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence, host of the conference, defended Schmidt’s role in the event in a statement. He is scheduled to discuss regulation of large tech companies in the opening session with Marietje Schaake, a Dutch politician who has advocated for more active government oversight of companies like Google. “Freedom of inquiry and the free expression of ideas are fundamental to Stanford and the collective mission of all universities,” the institute’s statement said. Schmidt did not respond to a request for comment.
The letter opposing Schmidt’s appearance points to public statements in which he was dismissive of employee complaints over a now canceled Google project that tested a search engine designed to comply with Chinese internet censorship. Schmidt told the BBC he always opposed the company’s decision to pull out of China in 2010, in the belief that Google’s services could help the country become more open. The protest letter also refers to a report by ProPublica last month that a Pentagon official tasked with policing conflicts of interest, Roma Laster, was sidelined after raising concerns about Schmidt’s conduct as chair of the department’s Defense Innovation Board. Schmidt was Google’s CEO from 2001 to 2011, then chairman of the company and its recently created parent Alphabet through 2017.
The demand that Schmidt be disinvited from Stanford originated with Jack Poulson, who resigned as a Google researcher last year in protest of the China search project. Prior to joining Google he was an assistant professor of mathematics at Stanford. Last week, Poulson was invited to appear on a panel at Stanford’s AI Ethics, Policy, and Governance conference in October. But he became alarmed when he learned Schmidt was to speak in the opening session.
Poulson wrote the letter, gathered signatures from sympathizers, and sent it to Stanford professors Fei-Fei Li and John Etchemendy. The pair this year cofounded the Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence to help ensure advances in AI don’t hurt people or society by destroying jobs or creating new forms of discrimination.
Li, a high-profile machine learning researcher, worked at Google in 2017 and 2018. She became embroiled in controversy over the company’s work on the Pentagon’s Project Maven, which employed Google AI technology to analyze drone footage.
Thousands of Google employees protested the contract, saying the company should not develop warfare technology. In May last year, the New York Times published extracts from emails between Li and other executives that showed her calling the project a “big win” but suggesting Google hide the fact it involved AI to avoid public backlash.
Soon after, Google announced it would not renew the contract, which was due to expire in March this year, and released guidelines for its AI technology. They forbid work on weapons, but allow collaborations with the military.