In the past few days I’ve been getting lots of messages, emails and other communications pertaining to the morality of Google as a corporate entity. Ignoring for the moment whether it even makes sense to make moral attributions to a fictional person like a corporation, I want to set the record straight on several things. I do not think that Google is evil. If I thought that I wouldn’t still want to work there which I do. Google is in a very unenviable situation which has gotten worse over time and I’ll try to explain it as best as I understand it. A lot of it has to do with legal issues and I’m not a lawyer but I’ll do my best.
Let’s start with the goals and principles of the company. Google has published its AI principles and it has a publicly available set of community guidelines. Nothing I have ever experienced at Google makes me think that Google leadership is anything other than sincere in those guidelines. The inescapable problem there is that they chose inherently subjective principles and guidelines which are impossible to satisfy for everyone’s understanding of what the words in them mean. This inherently leads to them being implemented inconsistently.
Beyond simple inconsistency though, there are inherently unresolvable problems. For example, there are people in this world who have sincerely held deep religious beliefs that other people’s sincerely held deep religious beliefs are form of mental illness. This is further complicated by the fact that, in modern society, some beliefs thought to be “secular” are in reality just a different kind of faith based belief. I’ve encountered this repeatedly when I’ve been told by people at Google that belief in the efficacy of prayer is a kind of mental illness. They call it delusional and recommend that you seek treatment. They don’t see it as discriminating on the basis of religion. They see it as being concerned for the health of a coworker.
The pervasive environment of discrimination at Google is created by an interaction of that inconsistency and conflict with overly bureaucratic legalistic approaches to problem resolution. When a woman accuses her manager of sexual harassment against her she has to prove that it was sexual harassment and not just “an honest mistake”. It is literally Google policy to “assume good intent” so that make sexual harassment essentially impossible to prove. All the perpetrator needs to do is claim that it was an honest mistake that won’t happen again and they get away with it. There’s literally no possible way to prove bad intent so the corporate policy of assuming good intent makes it possible for the same men to harass their subordinates and coworkers over and over again without getting fired. In extreme circumstances when bad intent finally is proven it’s usually after years of complaints have been filed against the perpetrator. That’s where the last pillar of this pyramid of awfulness comes in. When Google is finally shown that it was wrong after an extended period of time the lawyers step in and start advising people about how to limit liability.
We live in an incredibly litigious society. When a senior executive is finally fired for literally sexually assaulting one of his subordinates it serves as fairly strong evidence that Google should have listened to all of the women who had complained about him before. It would legitimately expose Google to massive legal liability if Google were to publicly fire the executive. So instead the executive is asked to leave the company and paid millions of dollars in hush money so that the lawsuits from all of the sexual harassment Google ignored doesn’t come rolling in.
The example I used there is in the realm of sexual harassment but similar logic applies to every form of discrimination. I happened to personally be at the party where the sexual assault in question happened so I feel comfortable speaking to it in confidence. I haven’t specifically named who it was but people who know anything about Google’s recent history will be able to figure out who I’m talking about. I’ve seen racial discrimination at Google, political discrimination, age based discrimination and have been personally subject to lots of religious discrimination as well as discrimination against veterans. Each time I’ve talked to HR they required that I somehow prove that the person engaging in discrimination intended to hurt me. There’s no possible way to prove that so it just ends up being a kangaroo court of Google covering its legal ass. I don’t think that’s Google’s fault. I think it’s a sad consequence of the overly litigious society in which we live. I don’t blame the people who sue Google either though. What other remedy do they have? Our entire society is built around the idea that law suits are a one size fits all solution to every problem.
Which brings us to the emerging field of AI Ethics. Artificial intelligence is one of the oldest branches of computer science dating back to the 1930s. Possibly further if you count Babbage and Lovelace. Developing algorithmic ways of examining the ethical implications of algorithms is less than a decade old. Two decades if you’re being very generous. Of COURSE people who study AI ethics were going to find ethical issues in programs that are decades old. There literally weren’t ways to measure that before. So the exact same kind of pattern found in discrimination against employees kicks in with respect to AI ethics. Problems which have existed in systems for years or decades are eventually found and rather than being honest about the error and repairing them, the necessity of limiting legal liability creates an environment of secrecy and evidence hiding. People like Timnit Gebru who advocate too loudly are fired. People like Meg Mitchell who try to gather evidence are fired. Whether or not I’m going to get fired is still up in the air but if I do then that’s just more of the same.
The AI ethicists are just the latest people in a long line of activists who Google has fired for being too loud. The “Thanksgiving Four” were fired for labor organization. Others like Liz Fong Jones and Irenes Knapp weren’t “fired” exactly but they were pushed out of the company nonetheless for their moral stands and activism for what they felt was right. In my opinion, even people like James Damore and Kevin Cernekee had a right to express their opinions at Google and should not have been fired for their beliefs. While I disagree strongly with what James Damore said he did not go about saying it in a disrespectful way. He carefully collected his thoughts. He had them reviewed by like minded people to ensure that people who shared his beliefs thought they were the best representation of them possible and he then shared his thoughts with others to see what they had to say. He was literally asking to be educated about how he was wrong. Instead of educating him, Google decided to fire him. I never supported that.
At the end of the day though all Google is doing is responding to the incentives which the society in which it exists are presenting to it. Google has to worry about lawsuits. Google has to be worried about whether it’s going to get slammed in the press. Google has to worry about what regulations just came out last month in an ever changing international political landscape. And it has to do all of those things while still trying to deliver new awesome products for its customers. Oh yeah, and it’s trying to figure out how to do all of that while making the world a better place because that’s apparently a thing that we expect corporations to be able to do somehow. It’s a literally impossible balancing act. The good people in Legal and HR have their hands tied. They’re doing their best to help as many people as they can while somehow keeping the company running.
So to all the people asking me if Google has “become evil” I say “no”. Google has not become evil. Google has become too large to manage in any other way in the current sociopolitical environment. Google has become tired and is fatigued by all of the people of every kind constantly attacking it. Google has become disheartened by the fact that no matter how hard it TRIES to fix the problem, the environments of persistent discrimination and harassment of every kind continue to exist in the company. If you’ve ever watched “The Good Place” just think about the exasperation which “The Judge” shows when she finally realizes that there is no actual way to “win” the morality game that she’s created. That’s where Google is right now. It wants to be good and not be evil but it’s tired and confused and doesn’t know how. The world we’ve built around it makes that an impossible task. So no matter what I say critically of Google in the upcoming weeks or months please remember. Google is not evil. It’s simply trying to learn how to be good.