Correspondence with HAI over Schmidt letter

Response from Rob Reich at 2:03AM ET, Sept. 2, 2019:

Dear Mr. Poulson,

I am an associate director of the Institute on Human-Centered AI at Stanford, and I was made aware earlier today of a petition you sent to HAI’s directors, Profs. Fei-Fei Li and John Etchemendy, concerning the participation of Eric Schmidt and Reid Hoffman as keynote speakers at the October HAI conference on AI Ethics, Policy, and Governance.

You were invited to participate in a session of the conference by Johannes Himmelreich, a scholar at Syracuse University who was a postdoctoral fellow until summer 2019 at the Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford. I am the faculty director of Ethics in Society, so I know Professor Himmelreich well. Like you, I hold him in very high regard.

Your petition asks that HAI rescind the invitation to Eric Schmidt to participate in a keynote at the conference.

I write to register my disagreement with your petition. My purpose here is to share my reasons for disagreement, and to engage in dialogue. I wish to emphasize that you are of course entitled to circulate the petition in its current, or any other, form.

You cite the actions of Eric Schmidt on the Defense Innovation Board (DIB) and his role as Executive Chairman at Google in 2014 in approving a payout to Andy Rubin as the grounds for rescinding his invitation to speak at the conference.

I disagree for two reasons.

First, HAI is dedicated to an exchange of views concerning the most important questions of AI ethics, policy, and governance. Eric Schmidt’s role at the conference is not to deliver a standalone keynote but to engage in a dialogue with Marietje Schaake, a former member of European Parliament and a leader in the effort in the EU to regulate big tech.

Second, and of greater importance, universities are committed as a matter of first principle to open inquiry and vigorous dialogue. It is evident that you find Schmidt’s actions on the DIB and at Google indefensible, a breach of ethical leadership. Rather than rescinding his invitation to speak, however, my view is that universities provide a setting where such questions and concerns can be debated openly. I encourage you to attend the conference and to challenge Schmidt, or any other speaker, in open and on the record. Dis-inviting speakers from campus events runs contrary to the spirit of open inquiry and dialogue.

My own hope is that you will choose to attend, and indeed to participate in the conference, per the invitation that was extended to you. If you should choose not to do so, the conference will be the worse for it.


Rob Reich

Response from Jack Poulson at 10:03AM ET, Sept. 2, 2019:

Dear Prof. Reich,

I appreciate your willingness to engage in dialogue on Stanford's role as a facilitator of discussions on the critical subject of regulation of the tech industry.

I do not seek to shut down open discussion -- my critique 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. If Stanford truly believes in enabling a forum capable of challenging unaccountable power structures, it must not duplicate those hierarchies within the academy. Having recently engaged in a round table symposium with him and other equally powerful figures, I can say with confidence that such a format is much more conducive to the vulnerable critiquing the powerful than waiting in line to question a keynote speaker.

Further, as you are undoubtedly aware, Mr. Schmidt is not merely a keynote speaker at your summit, but also a member of your institute's advisory council. And, as the letter mentions, Mr. Schmidt and one of your institute's founders were both recently senior executives at the same large technology company. Debate over how to regulate tech companies is, to put it mildly, not uncommon, and not without conflicts of interest. I would ask you to consider the immense weight that Stanford's endorsement carries -- as a former Stanford faculty member, I am all too aware -- and whether your institute is redirecting the flow of this debate towards the preferred narratives of tech executives, such as those on your advisory council and keynoting your events, or towards the concerns of the vulnerable.

And I deeply respect your willingness to continue to extend my invitation to participate despite my pointed critique. I do indeed plan to attend, but, if the summit chooses to direct its prestige into empowering even the most ethically embattled of tech executives, this will be in the form of a protest outside of your doors rather than as a humble participant.

Lastly, as a small point of clarification, my purpose for mentioning Mr. Hoffman was to underline the relevance of the Defense Innovation Board to your panel so that discussion of Roma Laster's demotion from it carried more weight. I take no issue with Mr. Hoffman's participation as a keynote speaker, except so far as it contributes to three out of four of the keynote slots being reserved for tech executives.


Jack Poulson