Google’s rock star chief scientist for AI is under fire and her future is unclear in the wake of uproar over military contracts

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  • Dr. Fei-Fei Li, Google’s chief scientist for artificial intelligence, was on a roll at Google until getting embroiled in the employee revolt against the company’s military contracts.
  • Sources say Li, a well-known AI booster and ethicist, has been criticized inside and out of the company after leaked emails appear to show her worrying more about the company’s public image than the ethical concerns surrounding Google’s military contracts.
  • To sign on at Google, Li took a leave of absence from Stanford University, where she’s chief of the school’s AI lab – but she’s due back sometime in the next six months.

Dr. Fei-Fei Li, Google’s chief scientist for artificial intelligence, has been a rising star at the company since arriving in the November of 2016.

Her future with the company, however, is unclear.

Li, an associate professor at Stanford University and chief of the school’s AI lab, took a leave of absence to work at Google. According to material posted online, Li is due to return from leave sometime in the second half of this year, a period that begins now.

Leading up to last month, Li appeared to be someone Google might want to tempt into staying. Her personal history has turned her into something of a media star. She immigrated to the US from China when she was 16 without knowing a word of English and climbed her way to the top of Google’s management ranks, earning a PhD along the way. In 2016 Li was named a Great Immigrant by the Carnegie Corporation.

But then came the employee backlash to Google’s agreement to supply the military AI tech that could help analyze drone-surveillance footage and Li found herself caught up in the months-long internal dispute.

With the drama from the controversy still playing out, Google’s star acquisition in the ultra-competitive AI field appears to be preparing to move on. “Dr. Li’s plans for Google and Stanford remain unchanged,” a Google spokesperson told Business Insider, declining to elaborate further.

Leaked emails make for bad optics

It’s not clear if Li was directly involved in winning the military contract, or whether she personally played any role in making it happen. But inside Google, which long prided itself on its “Don’t be Evil” motto, she has taken a lot of the heat for the controversial deal.

After news of that contract circulated within Google, more than 4,000 employees signed a petition demanding that management reverse the decision. A dozen employees later quit in protest. Google eventually yielded to many of the demands and has since promised not to ever build AI for weapons.

Sources among current and former Googlers who spoke to Business Insider say Li has been criticized because of comments she made during a September email exchange with other Google managers. Those emails were leaked last month to The New York Times and The Intercept and have proven to be embarrassing for Google as well as Li.

The emails reveal a discussion between Li and other managers, who were fretting about how to release news to the public about Google’s first big contract with the Pentagon.

“Avoid at ALL COSTS any mention or implication of AI,” she wrote in an email, according to The New York Times. “Weaponized AI is probably one of the most sensitized topics of AI – if not THE most. This is red meat to the media to find all ways to damage Google.”

In another message, Li wrote: “I don’t know what would happen if the media starts picking up a theme that Google is secretly building AI weapons or AI technologies to enable weapons for the Defense industry,” according to The Intercept. “Google Cloud has been building our theme on Democratizing AI in 2017, and Diane (Greene, Google cloud chief) and I have been talking about Humanistic AI for enterprise. I’d be super careful to protect these very positive images.”

AI for good

Greg Sandoval/Business InsiderGoogle CEO Sundar Pichai speaks with reporters at the 2018 I/O developer conference

To some Googlers, those comments made Li appear complicit in the AI deal with the Pentagon. Worse, the comments struck them as being at odds with Li’s public image of being an advocate for the ethical use of AI.

Even before arriving at Google, Li was a well-known AI booster and ethicist.

She has written often about the importance of developing “AI for good,” and “human-centered AI,” and AI that benefits all humans and “not just the privileged few.” She has cautioned that “enthusiasm for AI is preventing us from reckoning with its looming effects on society.”

Li’s critics say she didn’t appear very concerned about “AI for good” or ethics when discussing a military contract that should at least have rang some alarm bells. As a result, they say, her credibility and effectiveness as an AI evangelist are compromised.

To be sure, Li was not the only Google executive who seemed more than willing to work with the Pentagon, and she certainly wasn’t the final decision maker on the deal. At multiple all-hands meetings, Diane Greene, the person overseeing Google’s contracts with the Pentagon, defended them arguing that Google’s contributions were strictly for non-offensive purposes.

It’s possible that Li could continue to work at Google, perhaps with an “advisor” title if she returns to Stanford. What Li has going for her is that Google CEO Sundar Pichai has said that AI is vital to the company’s future, and she is considered one of the top AI experts in the world.

“AI is one of the most important things humanity is working on,” Pichai said earlier this year. “It is more profound than, I don’t know, electricity or fire.”

With Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and other tech rivals bolstering their AI teams, Google would likely prefer not to lose Li to a competitor – optics issues aside. And now that Google has given up on working with the military on weapons, and the billions of dollars that those contracts might have generated, Google is going to need all the AI brainpower and ethical guidance it can get.

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