Demote Eric Schmidt from Ethics Keynote

1st September 2019
Profs. Fei-Fei Li and John Etchemendy
Faculty Directors, Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence

Dear Profs. Fei-Fei Li and John Etchemendy,

Earlier this week I was kindly invited to join a panel for your upcoming conference, entitled “AI Ethics, Policy, and Governance”, scheduled to take place on October 28th and 29th at the Hoover Institute. I was excited by the invitation -- not just due to the important subject matter -- but also due to my immense respect for the researcher who extended the invitation. I had attended a similar, albeit closed door, meeting at the Hoover Institute a few months ago on the difficult issue of bridging the gap between Silicon Valley and the DOD; Prof. Etchemendy was even one of the attendees.

It quickly became apparent that your “AI Ethics, Policy, and Governance” conference includes strong participation from members of the Defense Innovation Board: both Reid Hoffman, the Co-Founder of LinkedIn, and Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO and Executive Chairman of Alphabet, now Technical Advisor at Alphabet, were chosen as keynote speakers. It is the latter of these two choices that alarms me to the point of writing this letter.

As Prof. Fei-Fei Li is undoubtedly aware, due to her recent role as the Chief Scientist of AI/ML at Google Cloud, there have recently been serious and credible inquiries into Mr. Schmidt’s ethical conduct. The most recent being his role in the removal of lifelong DOD civil servant Roma Laster from the Defense Innovation Board as a result of her attempting to perform her assigned duty of avoiding problematic conflicts of interest. ProPublica and Fortune quote a DOD official with knowledge of the events as saying:

“Roma was removed because she insisted on [Schmidt and Bezos] following the rules.”

And in May of this year, Mr. Schmidt conducted an interview with the BBC where he continued his decade long stance that his company should proactively censor human rights information in China in order to profit from ad sales on its search engine. Within the interview, he claimed:

“certainly the people who were building all these products knew about it.”

Many employees within the company were disturbed with the company’s refusal to clarify its boundaries on the censorship of human rights and student protests, or which protections it would put in place for pro-democracy journalists and human rights activists. Since then, more than 700 Google employees signed a joint letter in protest of the project, and, soon after, it was revealed that Google’s privacy team had been shut out. Yet, to this day, the company refuses to state that profiting from the suppression of democracy and dissent violates any of its principles. And, Mr. Schmidt is the most vocal champion of this violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Schmidt also failed in his role as Executive Chairman of Google in 2014 by allowing a $90M payout to Andy Rubin despite the company having verified sexual harassment claims against him. More recently, former Google legal manager, Jennifer Blakely, went public with the abuse she suffered due to the unethical conduct of Google’s former Head of Legal, David Drummond. Schmidt had a duty as a senior leader of Alphabet and Google to rein in these years of unethical behavior, and not only did he fail in this role, a senior executive used him as an excuse for the abuse.

I believe that, given the above-mentioned points, it would be inappropriate for Stanford University, and the Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence, to elevate Mr. Schmidt as a keynote speaker at an ethics conference. Further, given Dr. Li’s recent role as an executive at Mr. Schmidt’s company, even higher levels of care should be exercised. I therefore strongly request that his role as a keynote speaker be rescinded. Otherwise, I believe the entire mission of your institute should be called into question.


Jack Poulson, Founder, Tech Inquiry


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