Google’s chief cloud scientist leaves over AI controversy

Fei-Fei Li, chief scientist at Google’s cloud-computing division, is leaving after controversy over the use of the company’s artificial intelligence technology and a deal with the Pentagon.

Li, a venerated researcher in the field of AI, is returning to Stanford University, where she was a professor before joining Google about two years ago. Andrew Moore, dean of the school of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh will become head of AI at Google Cloud at the end of 2018, the Alphabet Inc. company said Monday. Moore worked at Google from 2006-2014.

In early June, Google retreated from a Pentagon cloud contract following employee protests. The program, called Project Maven, used Google’s AI-powered image-recognition software. In internal emails, Li praised the contract but cautioned colleagues to avoid mentioning the AI component of the deal for fear that the public would latch onto concern about “weaponized” AI. “This is red meat to the media to find all ways to damage Google,” Li wrote in an email reported by The New York Times.

Li also led Google’s move to open an AI research lab in Beijing. This is part of a broader effort by the company to return to mainland China since pulling its search service from the country in 2010. These plans have also sparked internal debate, and criticism by some U.S. politicians.

Google hired Li in 2016, although the China-born scientist continued in her AI role at Stanford. While working at Google, she helped create applications that the company could package for businesses that buy its cloud services. Many of these offerings built on Li’s specialty in computer vision, giving machines the ability to recognize and process images at tremendous speed. As the third-place competitor, behind Inc. and Microsoft Corp. in the cloud industry, Google’s unit leans heavily on its AI tools to lure potential clients.

At Google, Li’s mantra was “democratizing AI” — spreading the advanced tools to more software developers and academic researchers. She spearheaded the acquisition of Kaggle, a company that organizes more than 2 million data scientists.

In March, six months after the Project Maven deal was signed, Li penned an op-ed for The New York Times titled, “How to Make AI That’s Good for People.”

Li will become an adviser to the company, Diane Greene, chief executive officer of Google’s cloud unit, said in the statement.

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Google’s chief cloud scientist leaves over AI controversy