Hundreds of Google employees and more than 1,000 academic researchers are protesting after a prominent black scientist studying the ethics of artificial intelligence said she was fired by Google after the company tried to suppress its research and criticized its diversity efforts.
Timnit Gebru, who was the technical co-lead of Google’s Ethical AI team, continued writing Twitter Wednesday that she was fired after sending an email to an internal group for women and allies working in the company’s AI unit.
The email, first published by technical newsletter Platformer, referred to a dispute over a research report, but more broadly expressed frustration with Google’s diversity programs. In it, Gebru stated that “there is no accountability” or a real incentive for Google leadership to change. “Your life gets worse when you advocate for underrepresented people, you start to upset the other leaders,” Gebru wrote. “There is no way more documents or more conversations can accomplish anything.”
Gebru is one of the most well-known and respected black female scientists working in AI. Before joining Google, she co-authored a much-cited 2018 article where she found higher error rates in facial analysis technology for dark-skinned women. She also co-founded the non-profit Black in AI that aims to increase the representation of people of color in the field.
The dispute over Gebru’s investigation arose in November, when a senior manager at Google told Gebru she should revoke or remove her name from a paper she co-authored, Gebru told Wired. The article, written by researchers inside and outside Google, stated that technology companies could do more to ensure that AI systems aimed at mimicking human writing and speaking do not exacerbate historical gender bias and the use of offensive language. according to a concept copy seen by Reuters.
“I felt like we were being censored and thought this was affecting all the ethical AI research,” she told Wired. ‘You will not have papers that always make the company happy and that do not indicate problems. That contradicts what it means to be that kind of researcher. “
Gebru told Wired she was trying to negotiate with Google and offered to take her name from the newspaper 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 refused, she would leave at a later date.
Google turned down 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 her access to corporate email, Gebru said. Google has maintained that Gebru has resigned.
Gebru’s abrupt departure caused shock waves through Google and the wider AI research community. Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, wrote on Twitter that Gebru’s dismissal was “absolutely annoying” and “a disaster.” Nearly 800 Google employees and more than 1,100 supporters from academia and civil society have signed a letter of protest.
“The termination is an act of retaliation against Dr. Gebru, and it poses a danger to people working for ethical and just AI – especially black people and people of color – on Google,” said the letter, published by the group that hosted a meeting on Google about 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 resignation has overturned a working understanding of what kind of research Google will allow. This is also a moment of settlement outside of Google.”
Gebru’s abrupt departure adds to years of fear, including several layoffs and layoffs, at the AI department and other organizations at Google due to diversity, and whether the company’s efforts to minimize the potential harm to its services are sufficient .
Last Wednesday, the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint accusing Google of illegally monitoring and questioning several employees who were subsequently fired for protesting company policies and attempting to form a union.
Jeff Dean, head of Google’s AI unit, told staff in an email obtained by Platformer that the research paper “fell short of our publication bar.” Dean, who is white and male, also addressed Gebru’s email to the group of women and allies, writing, “I am also sorry that hundreds of you received an email from Timnit this week telling you to stop work on critical DEI programs. Please don’t. “
Google did not respond to a request for comment.