Google Quietly Disbanded Another AI Review Board Following Disagreements

LONDON—Google is disbanding a panel here to review its artificial-intelligence work in health care, people familiar with the matter say, as disagreements about its effectiveness dogged one of the tech industry’s highest-profile efforts to govern itself.

The Alphabet Inc. GOOGL +0.23% unit is struggling with how best to set guidelines for its sometimes-sensitive work in AI—the ability for computers to replicate tasks that only humans could do in the past. It also highlights the challenges Silicon Valley faces in setting up self-governance systems as governments around the world scrutinize issues ranging from privacy and consent to the growing influence of social media and screen addiction among children.

AI has recently become a target in that stepped-up push for oversight as some sensitive decision-making—including employee recruitment, health-care diagnoses and law-enforcement profiling—is increasingly being outsourced to algorithms. The European Commission is proposing a set of AI ethical guidelines and researchers have urged companies to adopt similar rules. But industry efforts to conduct such oversight in-house have been mixed.

But the move also came amid disagreements between panel members and DeepMind, Google’s U.K.-based AI research unit, according to people familiar with the matter. Those differences centered on the review panel’s ability to access information about research and products, the binding power of their recommendations and the amount of independence that DeepMind could maintain from Google, according to these people.

A spokeswoman for DeepMind’s health-care unit in the U.K. declined to comment specifically about the board’s deliberations. After the reorganization, the company found that the board, called the Independent Review Panel, was “unlikely to be the right structure in the future.”

Google bought DeepMind in 2014, promising it a degree of autonomy to pursue its research on artificial intelligence. In 2016, DeepMind set up a special unit called DeepMind Health to focus on health-care-related opportunities. At the same time, DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman unveiled a board of nine veterans of government and industry, drawn from the arts, sciences and technology sectors, to meet once a quarter and scrutinize its work with the U.K.’s publicly funded health service. Among its tasks, the group had to produce a public annual report.

Google said it would build the app into an “AI-powered assistant for nurses and doctors everywhere.” That caused concern in public health and privacy circles because of previous assurances from Google and DeepMind that the two wouldn’t share health records.

DeepMind Health was renamed Google Health, becoming part of an umbrella division uniting Google’s other health-focused units like health-tracking platform Google Fit and Verily, a life-sciences research arm.

Inside the review board, many directors felt blindsided, according to people familiar with the matter. Some directors complained they could have played a helpful role in explaining the change of control of the Streams app to the public if given earlier insight.

The review panel still plans to publish a final “lessons learned” report, according to a person familiar with the matter, which will make recommendations about how better to set up such boards in the future.