Google fired a prominent AI ethicist, and her former colleagues are up in arms

Google fired a prominent AI ethicist, and her former colleagues are up in arms

Dr. Timnit Gebru, in 2018, when she still worked for Google.
Dr. Timnit Gebru, in 2018, when she still worked for Google.
Image: Kimberly White / getty

Google just can’t help alienating large swaths of its employee base. 

More than 1,530 (and counting) Google employees have signed an open letter decrying the company’s summary firing of the prominent artificial intelligence expert, Dr. Timnit Gebru. Dr. Gebru announced her dismissal Wednesday, which followed an internal email she sent regarding the lack of women being hired at the company and an ongoing internal debate about one of her research papers. 

“We, the undersigned, stand in solidarity with Dr. Timnit Gebru, who was terminated from her position as Staff Research Scientist and Co-Lead of Ethical Artificial Intelligence (AI) team at Google, following unprecedented research censorship,” reads the open letter. “We call on Google Research to strengthen its commitment to research integrity and to unequivocally commit to supporting research that honors the commitments made in Google’s AI Principles.”

When Dr. Gebru wrote that she’d been fired on Dec. 2, the news seemingly came as much as a surprise to her as it did to her now-former colleagues. 

“I was fired by [Google AI senior vice president] @JeffDean for my email to Brain women and Allies,” wrote Dr. Gebru on Dec. 2. “My corp account has been cutoff. So I’ve been immediately fired :-)”

According to Bloomberg, prior to Dr. Gebru’s firing, Google demanded the retraction of one of her submitted research papers. The report notes that the situation escalated when Dr. Gebru, who served as the co-lead of Google’s artificial intelligence team, wanted an explanation. This request, combined with an email regarding Google’s alleged failure to hire women over the course of the pandemic, are allegedly what led the company to fire Dr. Gebru. 

“In an email to Dr. Gebru’s team on the evening of December 2, 2020, Google executives claimed that she had chosen to resign,” continues the open letter. “This is false.”

Of course, Google has a different explanation. On Friday, Jeff Dean published his explanation for Dr. Gebru’s firing. Notably, he characterizes her departure as a resignation — which Dr. Gebru disputes — and put the blame on the internal submission process of Dr. Gebru’s research paper. 

“Unfortunately, this particular paper was only shared with a day’s notice before its deadline — we require two weeks for this sort of review — and then instead of awaiting reviewer feedback, it was approved for submission and submitted.”

Essentially, argued Dean, the problem with the paper was about what is and is not the correct process. On Friday, Dr. Gebru disputed this claim in a lengthy Twitter thread. 

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Either way, it’s clear where her former colleagues stand on the matter. 

“This has become a matter of public concern,” continues the open letter, “and there needs to be public accountability to ensure any trust in Google Research going forward.”

Time will tell whether or not Google heeds the call. 

Published at Sat, 05 Dec 2020 20:46:07 +0000

What do you think?

Written by Riel Roussopoulos


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