"Zero conversation" - Google fires top AI scientist, sparking controversy

Earlier this year, five Google workers were fired by the company for pushing back against certain policy changes. Months later, after a year-long inquiry into Google’s practises of firing people, it has emerged that Google is subjecting their employees to surveillance. Any employee the company finds engaging in protest against them is likely to be […]

Jon Deery
8th January 2021
Earlier this year, five Google workers were fired by the company for pushing back against certain policy changes. Months later, after a year-long inquiry into Google’s practises of firing people, it has emerged that Google is subjecting their employees to surveillance. Any employee the company finds engaging in protest against them is likely to be removed from the company, as many were after the 2018 walkouts over Google’s mishandling of sexual harassment allegations. This pattern has continued with the firing of top AI researcher Timnit Gebru.

Gebru tweeted on the 2nd of December that she’d been fired by Google for sending an email. She had emailed Google Brain Women and Allies, a group within the company, to express her frustration that, in Google HQ, “there is zero accountability.” She complained that “your life gets worse when you start advocating for underrepresented people, you start making the other leaders upset.”

Prior to her firing, Gebru had worked with others to produce a paper that argued technology companies could be doing a lot more to combat offensive language used by speech-mimicking AI.

A key point in the email (which Platformer has published in full) was Google’s treatment of Gebru’s recent research paper. Prior to her firing, Gebru had worked with others to produce a paper that argued technology companies could be doing a lot more to combat offensive language used by speech-mimicking AI. She had been asked to remove her name from this paper, which she refused to do, which prompted the company to retract her document from publication.

In her email, Gebru wrote: “I understand that the only things that mean anything at Google are levels, I’ve seen how my expertise has been completely dismissed. But now there’s an additional layer saying any privileged person can decide that they don’t want your paper out with zero conversation. So you’re blocked from adding your voice to the research community—your work which you do on top of the other marginalization you face here.”

Image Credit: teguhjatipras on Pixabay

On top of this, Gebru co-founded the non-profit Black in AI that aims to increase representation of people of color in the field.

Gebru gained prominence from her pioneering 2018 paper that revealed the racial bias of AI facial recognition algorithms, which had been trained to recognise faces based on an 83% white and 77% male dataset; she demonstrated that this led to consistent inaccuracies among non-white and non-male subjects. On top of this, Gebru co-founded the non-profit Black in AI that aims to increase representation of people of color in the field.

Such achievements have earned Gebru a great deal of respect among the scientific community, and (as of Thursday the 10th) more than 2,300 Google employees and over 3,700 academics have signed an open letter protesting her firing.

Both Jeff Dean, the man responsible for firing Timnit Gebru, and Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, have sent emails to staff apologising for Gebru’s firing. However, Dean’s apology contained the sentence: “we accept and respect her decision to resign from Google,” deferring the responsibility for her departure onto Gebru herself.

She tweeted a response to his email, saying: “it does not say "I'm sorry for what we did to her and it was wrong." What it DOES say is "it seeded doubts and led some in our community to question their place at Google." So I see this as "I'm sorry for how it played out but I'm not sorry for what we did to her yet."”

Similarly, Pichai’s acknowledgement that “we need to accept responsibility for the fact that a prominent Black, female leader with immense talent left Google unhappily” was not sufficient for Gebru. She tweeted a response to his email, saying: “it does not say "I'm sorry for what we did to her and it was wrong." What it DOES say is "it seeded doubts and led some in our community to question their place at Google." So I see this as "I'm sorry for how it played out but I'm not sorry for what we did to her yet."”

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