By Julia Carrie Wong | The Guardian
More than 1,200 Google employees and more than 1,500 academic researchers are speaking out in protest after a prominent Ethiopian- American scientist studying the ethics of artificial intelligence said she was fired by Google after the company attempted to suppress her research and she criticized its diversity efforts.
Timnit Gebru, who was the technical co-lead of Google’s Ethical AI team, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday that she had been fired after sending an email to an internal group for women and allies working in the company’s AI unit.
The email, which was first published by the tech newsletter Platformer, referenced a dispute over a research paper, but more broadly expressed frustration at Google’s diversity programs. In it, Gebru argued that “there is zero accountability” or real incentive for Google leadership to change. “Your life gets worse when you start advocating for underrepresented people, you start making the other leaders upset,” Gebru wrote. “There is no way more documents or more conversations will achieve anything.”
Gebru is one of the most well-known and respected Black female scientists working in AI. Before joining Google, she co-authored a widely cited 2018 paper that found higher error rates in facial analysis technology for women with darker skin tones. She also co-founded the non-profit Black in AI that aims to increase representation of people of color in the field.
The dispute over Gebru’s research arose in November, when a senior manager at Google told Gebru that she would have to either retract or remove her name from a paper she had co-authored, Gebru told Wired. The paper, co-authored by researchers inside and outside Google, contended that technology companies could do more to ensure AI systems aimed at mimicking human writing and speech do not exacerbate historical gender biases and use of offensive language, according to a draft copy seen by Reuters.
“I felt like we were being censored and thought this had implications for all of ethical AI research,” she told Wired. “You’re not going to have papers that make the company happy all the time and don’t point out problems. That’s antithetical to what it means to be that kind of researcher.”
Gebru told Wired that she attempted to negotiate with Google, offering to remove her name from the paper in exchange for a full explanation of the company’s objections, as well as a discussion of a better process for handling such matters in the future. If the company declined, she would arrange to leave at a later date.
Google rejected her request, and – after Gebru sent the frustrated email about diversity efforts – the company emailed her team to say it had accepted her resignation. They also cut off her access to company email, Gebru said. Google has maintained that Gebru resigned.
Gebru’s abrupt departure sent shockwaves through Google and the broader AI research community. Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, wrote on Twitter that Gebru’s firing was “absolutely infuriating” and “a disaster”. More than 1,200 Google employees and more than 1,500 supporters from academia and civil society signed a letter of protest.
“The termination is an act of retaliation against Dr Gebru, and it heralds danger for people working for ethical and just AI – especially Black people and People of Color – across Google,” read the letter, published by the group that organized a walkout at Google over the company’s treatment of sexual harassment and gender discrimination.
“Research integrity can no longer be taken for granted in Google’s corporate research environment, and Dr Gebru’s firing has overthrown a working understanding of what kind of research Google will permit. This is also a moment of reckoning beyond Google.”
Gebru’s abrupt departure adds to years of angst, including several resignations and firings, in the AI department and other organizations at Google over diversity and whether the company’s efforts to minimize the potential harms of its services are sufficient.
Just Wednesday, the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint accusing Google of unlawfully monitoring and questioning several workers who were then fired for protesting against company policies and trying to organize a union.
Jeff Dean, head of Google’s AI unit, told staff in an email obtained by Platformer that the research paper “didn’t meet our bar for publication”. Dean, who is white and male, also addressed Gebru’s email to the women and allies group, writing: “I also feel badly that hundreds of you received an email just this week from Timnit telling you to stop work on critical DEI programs. Please don’t.”
On Friday, Dean released a longer statement about Gebru’s termination, which he continued to call a resignation. In it, he reiterated his argument that the paper did not include enough references to efforts Google has made to lessen the environmental impacts of computing or its attempts to mitigate bias in AI.
Google declined to comment beyond Dean’s statement