Google has confirmed that one of its senior executives participated in the UK government’s scientific advisory group on Covid-19, raising further questions about the composition of the secretive committee.
Demis Hassabis, a co–founder of Google’s artificial intelligence division, DeepMind, attended a meeting of the scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage) on 18 March, when the group was considering whether the UK should go into lockdown.
Google said Hassabis was invited by the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, who chairs Sage, which provides top-level guidance to the Cabinet Office during emergencies.
While Hassabis is considered a world-leading AI researcher, the presence on Sage of an executive from a Silicon Valley company that has been exploring ways to profit from using big data in the health industry is likely to deepen controversy about the group.
DeepMind previously processed millions of healthcare records from an NHS hospital trust as part of a scheme to design a diagnostic app, in an arrangement subsequently found to have contravened data protection law. DeepMind’s health unit was transferred to the parent company’s health division last year.
Also last year, Google struck a dealwith the US hospital chain Ascension giving it access to the health data of millions of Americans.
A spokesperson for Google’s DeepMind said: “Demis was one of several scientists asked to contribute his thoughts on the government’s response to Covid-19.”
The spokesperson said Hassabis was a full participant in the meeting and was not required to sign a non-disclosure agreement. The spokesperson said they did not know whether the request to involve Hassabis in Sage came from the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, as has been reported.