Ron Miller: Why a Google Ethics Commission is like jumbo shrimp

Ron Miller: Why a Google Ethics Commission is like jumbo shrimp

Google hasn't been anyone's idea of an ethical beacon in recent years

You might have heard that in response to concerns about its purchase of artificial intelligence vendor Deep Mind, Google has promised to form an artificial intelligence ethics board. That's rich.

When I first heard " Google" and "ethics" in the same sentence, my thoughts turned to other oxymorons like "jumbo shrimp" and "House Intelligence Committee." If you only know a little bit about the company's behavior over the years, you have to see the phrase "Google ethics" as a contradiction in terms.

The idea behind the board is reportedly to ensure that AI is developed safely at Google, however Google defines that (and nobody knows). Let's be real, though: Putting Google in charge of the ethics of anything is a stretch. This is the company that once promised to do no evil -- and has been trying to live that promise down ever since.

Maybe when they started, when they were two happy-go-lucky Stanford students, Google's founders really believed their company would be different. But their little startup grew into a behemoth and eventually went public, and just like Microsoft, the technology powerhouse that dominated the scene in Google's early days, Google has done whatever was necessary to maintain its market dominance.

Google is constantly raising ethical concerns, whether by giving precedence to its own content over others in Google Search, changing its algorithms without providing the least bit of transparency, closing down beloved services like Google Reader, snooping on everyone's Wi-Fi connections or secretly tracking iPhone users.

In fact, Google is in the midst of a lawsuit in the U.K. over the iPhone tracking issue, and The Guardian reports that the company isn't exactly making friends and influencing people with its attempt to have the lawsuit moved to California. Plaintiffs called Google "arrogant and immoral" for arguing that the lawsuit needs to be moved to its home turf, according to the British newspaper.

And this is the company that wants to be the self-policing ethical reviewer of artificial intelligence? With its track record, how can anyone seriously think that it would let some pesky ethical issues get in the way if the DeepMind technology could provide Google with a competitive advantage?

Publicly traded companies have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to maximize value. Google is certainly not alone among publicly traded companies in putting that imperative above all others. But it has shown itself in recent years to be especially aggressive in attending to the bottom line and willing to piss off users, competitors, governments and anyone else to do it.

In the end, of course, this DeepMind buy might not do for Google everything that it's now hoping for. Not everything that Google touches turns to gold; just look at Motorola Mobility, which Google bought for $12.5 billion in 2012 and is now selling for just $2.9 billion. But I do know this: If the DeepMind deal doesn't pan out, it won't be because an ethics board was able to put any brakes on Google's ambitions.

Ron Miller is a freelance technology journalist and blogger. He is an editor at FierceContentManagement and a contributing editor at EContent Magazine.

Read more about management in Computerworld's Management Topic Center.

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