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Stanford AI Conference draws criticism for inviting former Google CEO Eric Schmidt

Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt was recently invited to speak at an AI conference sponsored by the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. A group of Google employees and tech activists are now opposing this invitation, citing Schmidt’s questionable ethical conduct and raising broader concerns about HAI’s close connections with big tech. (Photo: Guillaume Paumier)

Former Stanford math professor and Google research Jack Poulson is leading a group of activists, Google employees and academics in opposing former Alphabet chairman and Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s invitation as one of several keynote speakers at an artificial intelligence ethics conference hosted by the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI). 

Citing Schmidt’s questionable “ethical conduct” as grounds for his disinvitation, Poulson has also called into question HAI leadership’s close relationships with large tech companies. But HAI has upheld Schmidt’s invitation and pushed back on Poulson’s critiques about the prevalence of powerful Silicon Valley figures at the Institute. 

Poulson’s initial letter of protest accuses Schmidt of offenses including abetting censorship of human rights information in China and failing to hold a senior Google executive accountable for verified sexual harassment claims filed against him. Following reports that Google was building a censored version of its search engine in China, Poulson himself publicly resigned from the company. The letter was co-signed by more than 40 people.

In response, HAI defended Schmidt’s invitation as a keynote speaker to the conference, “AI Ethics, Policy, and Governance,” which will take place on Oct. 28 at the Hoover Institution. 

“We hope this conference will be an enlightening example of our commitment to host open and vigorous debate on difficult issues would benefit from public discussion,” HAI wrote in a statement to The Verge. “Rescinding our invitation to any of those speakers would be anathema to the purpose of the conference, HAI and the University.”

Stanford professor Rob Reich, an associate director of HAI, echoed this commitment to free speech in a personal reply penned to Poulson, which Poulson published online. Reich encouraged Poulson to “attend the conference and to challenge Schmidt, or any other speaker, in open and on the record.” Reich also wrote that Schmidt was not giving a standalone keynote, but rather would “engage in a dialogue” with Marietje Schaake, a former member of the European Parliament who has pushed for greater regulation of big data and stronger privacy protections. 

Poulson clarified on Twitter than his objection was specifically to Schmidt’s role as keynote speaker, rather than to his attendance at the event. 

“I do not seek to shut down open discussion — my critique takes takes the form of an open letter — but rather to call attention to the manner in which your proposed summit would empower and elevate Mr. Schmidt over his academic critics,” he added in a response to Reich, published online. 

Poulson argued that Schmidt’s participation as a member of a roundtable symposium would be “much more conducive to the vulnerable critiquing the powerful than waiting in line to question a keynote speaker.”

When Poulson’s initial protest letter was published, information about the event under the “Upcoming Events” section of the HAI website listed four keynote speakers, three of whom were tech executives, according to a screenshot provided by Poulson. In addition to Schmidt and Schaake, these speakers included LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman ’90 and DJ Patil, the former LinkedIn chief scientist who also served as the chief data scientist of the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy from 2015-17. 

The keynote speakers list has since been updated to include Jay Buolamwini, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, and Stephanie Dinkins, associate professor of art at Stony Brook University.

HAI Co-director John Etchemendy told The Daily that both Buolamwini and Dinkins were invited before Poulson’s protest letter, noting that speakers are not added to the event website until they confirm their own attendance. HAI Deputy Director Michael Sellitto provided The Daily with an Aug. 9 version of the “2019 Fall Conference” page on the HAI website which listed Buolamwini as a keynote.

While Poulson told The Daily that the addition of Buolamwini and Dinkins is a “marked improvement” in the composition of keynote speakers, he said he remains more broadly concerned with HAI, particularly the presence of multiple senior tech executives on its advisory board. These include Jeff Dean, Head of Google.ai; John Hennessy, former Stanford president and chairman of Alphabet; Marissa Mayer, former Head of Search Products at Google and current Yahoo CEO; and Ram Shriram, a founding Google board member. HAI Co-director Fei-Fei Li is also Google Cloud’s former Chief Scientist of AI/ML (artificial intelligence and machine learning).

“My primary concern is that Stanford is using its nominal status as a public-interest nonprofit to create a forum which is entirely controlled by Silicon Valley executives but becomes accepted as fair broker for debating the regulation of the tech sector,” Poulson wrote in an email to The Daily. 

HAI Institute co-director John Etchemendy told The Daily in a separate email that he does not believe Poulson provided any proof of such bias. 

“As far as I can tell, he [Poulson] has given no concrete evidence that we have unfairly elevated narratives of the tech industry, either in our launch symposium or in the upcoming fall symposium,” Etchemendy wrote. “Our goal is to give a voice to all relevant stakeholders in technology policy and practice.

Reich argued that inviting speakers to Stanford’s campus for the HAI conference does not constitute a University endorsement of their views. 

“[I]n inviting Eric Schmidt to campus, HAI is not endorsing his views,” he wrote. “It is not directing its prestige toward Eric Schmidt anymore than it is directing toward Jack Poulson.”

Schmidt, who has defended his track record at Google, did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment. 

Contact Berber Jin at fjin16 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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