Google Plans To Double AI Ethics Research Staff
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Google Plans To Double AI Ethics Research Staff

CEO will boost operating budget of team tasked with evaluating code and product to avert discrimination.

By Trip Mickle
Wed, May 12, 2021 10:25amGrey Clock 3 min

Alphabet Inc.’s Google plans to double the size of its team studying artificial-intelligence ethics in the coming years, as the company looks to strengthen a group that has had its credibility challenged by research controversies and personnel defections.

Vice President of Engineering Marian Croak said at The Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything Festival that the hires will increase the size of the responsible AI team that she leads to 200 researchers. Additionally, she said that Alphabet Chief Executive Sundar Pichai has committed to boost the operating budget of a team tasked with evaluating code and product to avert harm, discrimination and other problems with AI.

“Being responsible in the way that you develop and deploy AI technology is fundamental to the good of the business,” Ms. Croak said. “It severely damages the brand if things aren’t done in an ethical way.”

Google announced in February that Ms. Croak would lead the AI ethics group after it fired the division’s co-head, Margaret Mitchell, for allegedly sharing internal documents with people outside the company. Ms. Mitchell’s exit followed criticism of Google’s suppression of research last year by a prominent member of the team, Timnit Gebru, who says she was fired because of studies critical of the company’s approach to AI. Mr. Pichai pledged an investigation into the circumstances around Ms. Gebru’s departure and said he would seek to restore trust.

In addition to straining the existing team, those personnel changes have frayed Google’s relationship with external groups focused on AI such as Black in AI and Queer in AI, which released a joint statement Monday criticizing Google for setting a “dangerous precedent for what type of research, advocacy, and retaliation is permissible in our community.” The statement was earlier covered by Wired.

Ms. Croak called those exits a tragedy and said she agreed to fill the position because she thought she could help provide some stability in what has been a distressing time. A Princeton University graduate, she has a doctorate in social psychology and quantitative analysis and said she plans to bring her user-focused approach to engineering and concern about societal issues to the role.

“I thought, maybe, I could make a difference and carry on the work and have a larger impact,” Ms. Croak said.

Health will be one area of focus for the group, she said. The AI team recently assisted in the development of an algorithm that can detect abnormal heart rhythms by scanning fingertips on an Android phone. During its development, she said the ethics team helped determine that darker-skinned people had more variabilities and errors in testings, which had to be addressed before the product’s release.

Ms. Croak is one of very few senior Black executives at Google, where Black women account for 1.2% of the workforce. She has served as chair of Google’s Black Leadership Advisory Group and has been active in calling for Silicon Valley companies to improve their diversity.

“They’re disappointing numbers and I think that’s true for so many companies in Silicon Valley,” Ms. Croak said of the percentage of Black employees in Google’s workforce. “Fortunately, in the last year or so, we’ve made a more concerted effort in attracting Black talent, but those numbers are pretty dismal.”

She said that Google has been more proactive in providing mentorship to young Black staffers and said that it would take changing the culture across Silicon Valley to improve opportunities for people of color in tech.

“Sometimes I think it’s the mind-set where you’re very competitive and individualistic in your pursuits in the workplace and that sometimes can foster, not racism, but at least exclusion,” Ms. Croak said.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: May 11, 2021.



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Boost for World Economy as U.S., Eurozone Accelerate in Tandem

Surveys point to a fresh acceleration in the U.S., even as growth in the eurozone strengthens

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Global economic growth is becoming more broad based, with surveys indicating that business activity in both the U.S. and the eurozone gained momentum in May.

The eurozone economy contracted in the second half of 2023 following a surge in energy and food prices triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the subsequent rise in interest rates intended to tame that inflation.

By contrast, the U.S. economy expanded strongly over the same period, opening up an unusually wide growth gap with the eurozone. That gap narrowed as the eurozone returned to growth in the first three months of the year, while the U.S. slowed.

However, surveys released Thursday point to a fresh acceleration in the U.S., even as growth in the eurozone strengthened. That bodes well for a global economy that relied heavily on the U.S. for its dynamism in 2023.

The S&P Global Flash U.S. Composite PMI —which gauges activity in the manufacturing and services sectors—rose to 54.4 in May from 51.3 in April, marking a 25-month high and the first time since the beginning of the year that the index hasn’t slowed. A level over 50 indicates expansion in private-sector activity.

“The data put the U.S. economy back on course for another solid gross domestic product gain in the second quarter,” said Chris Williamson, chief business economist at S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Eurozone business activity in turn increased for the third straight month in May, and at the fastest pace in a year, the surveys suggest. The currency area’s joint composite PMI rose to 52.3 from 51.7.

The uptick was led by powerhouse economy Germany, where continued strength in services and improvement in industry drove activity to its highest level in a year. That helped the manufacturing sector in the bloc as a whole grow closer to recovery, reaching a 15-month peak.

By contrast, surveys of purchasing managers pointed to a slowdown in the U.K. economy following a stronger-than-expected start to the year that saw it outpace the U.S. The survey was released a day after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called a surprise election for early July, banking on signs of an improved economic outlook to turn around a large deficit in the opinion polls.

Similar surveys pointed to a further acceleration in India’s rapidly-expanding economy, and to a rebound in Japan, where the economy contracted in the first three months of the year. In Australia, the surveys pointed to a slight slowdown in growth during May.

Businesses reported that they were raising their prices at the slowest pace since November, which should reassure the European Central Bank. However, the eurozone continued to add jobs in May, suggesting that wages might not cool as rapidly as the ECB had hoped.

The ECB released figures Thursday that showed wages negotiated by labor unions in the eurozone were 4.7% higher in the first quarter than a year earlier, a faster increase than the 4.5% recorded in the final three months of 2023

The ECB has signalled it will lower its key interest rate in early June, while the Fed is waiting for evidence that a slowdown in inflation will resume after setbacks this year.

Nevertheless, eurozone businesses and households shouldn’t bank on successive cuts to borrowing costs, ECB Vice President Luis de Guindos said. “There is a huge degree of uncertainty,” he said. “We have made no decisions on the number of interest rate cuts or on their size,” he said in an interview published Thursday. “We will see how economic data evolve.”

Continued resilience in the eurozone economy would likely make the ECB more cautious about lowering borrowing costs after its first move, economist Franziska Palmas at Capital Economics wrote in a note. “If the economy continues to hold up well, cuts further ahead may be slower than we had anticipated,” she said.

– Edward Frankl contributed to this story.

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