In an apparent step toward ethical AI considerations, Google announced the launch of its Digital Futures Project on September 11, 2023. The project aims to “understand and address the opportunities and challenges of artificial intelligence,” according to Brigitte Hoyer Gosselink, Director at Google.org. To put its intentions into action, Google has allocated a $20 million fund via Google.org, which will be distributed as grants to think tanks and academic institutions around the globe.

However, when contrasted with Google’s colossal expenditures in artificial intelligence (AI) R&D and acquisitions, the $20 million fund seems somewhat trifling.

A Drop in the Ocean

Google is no newcomer to AI investments. Since 2006, the tech giant has poured nearly $3.9 billion into disclosed AI deals. Just one of these deals—the acquisition of Nest Labs in 2014—amounted to a staggering $3.2 billion. More recently, Google invested almost $400 million in AI startup Anthropic, which is developing technology in competition with OpenAI’s ChatGPT.

This makes the $20 million funding for the Digital Futures Project look like a mere drop in the ocean. A question worth pondering is, does this nominal sum genuinely represent Google’s approach to the critical discussions surrounding AI and public policy?

The Scope of The Digital Futures Project

The Digital Futures Project seeks to tackle a multitude of questions, from AI’s impact on global security to its influence on labor and the economy. It’s an ambitious task that calls for robust financial backing and expertise. The inaugural grantees include notable institutions such as the Aspen Institute, Brookings Institution, and MIT Work of the Future.

A Contrast in Priorities?

Interestingly, Google’s actions in the realm of AI ethics have been a subject of debate. Notably, the company let go of two prominent researchers on its ethics team—Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell. Their departures sparked controversy, fueling discussions about whether Google is genuinely interested in embracing ethical considerations around AI.

Toward a Future of AI Responsibility?

Google’s modest $20 million investment in the Digital Futures Project invites us to question the adequacy of this funding, especially in light of the billions the company has invested in AI development and acquisitions. While the fund will undoubtedly facilitate some level of discourse, its size raises questions about Google’s priorities when it comes to ethical considerations in AI.

If the goal is to contribute to deep collaboration across industry, academia, governments, and civil society, as Google claims, the funding could be viewed as inadequate given the company’s financial capacity in AI investments.

Wrapping Up: A Funding Gap to Bridge?

Google’s $20 million fund for the Digital Futures Project is but a tiny fragment of its enormous investments in AI. As AI continues to transform our lives and societies, the need for comprehensive and adequately funded projects to discuss its ethical and social implications becomes more pressing. One wonders if Google’s meager fund can genuinely support the heavy intellectual and ethical lifting that AI demands. The disparity in Google’s funding allocation could very well serve as a litmus test for its approach to responsible AI in the years to come.