Google fires another head of its AI ethics team, continuing controversy

Jon Deery investigates the second in a series of Google's firings of the heads of its ethics committee.

Jon Deery
13th March 2021
Image: Firmbee on Pixabay
Timnit Gebru, fired from Google in a controversial recent act of company discrimination, was the co-lead of its ethics committee. Soon after Gebru’s 'resignation', they fired the other co-lead of the committee, Margaret Mitchell, provoking further outrage.

Margaret Mitchell tweeted 'I’m fired' on the 19th of February. She followed that up with a tweet about how, while working for Google, she had 'tried to raise concerns about race & gender inequity, and speak up about Google’s problematic firing of Dr. Gebru'.

Image: geralt on Pixabay

Mitchell wanted to see the company focus instead on the question: 'What could AI do to bring about a better society?' She believed this required a focus on 'foresight', and the ability to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Dr Mitchell’s research during her whole time with the company had focussed on shifting Google’s values from 'the common operating paradigm where the goal is to do “something novel” or to improve a given task'. Mitchell wanted to see the company focus instead on the question: 'What could AI do to bring about a better society?' She believed this required a focus on 'foresight', and the ability to learn from the mistakes of the past.

This philosophy is all outlined in a Google Doc Mitchell wrote about Gebru’s firing. In the document she also outlines how the discriminatory internal structure of Google is compromising the company’s research ethics:

'Making progress in a context of multiple conflicting incentives is hard enough, but in addition, incentives are weighted by your “level” in a hierarchy. The higher a person’s “level”, the more weight there is for their incentives.' 

Image: geralt on Pixabay

'This can cause a very top-heavy drag on ideas that are obviously very dumb and hard to understand. Such as firing Dr. Timnit Gebru and calling it a resignation'.

But Alex Hanna, a Google employee, has accused the company of “running a smear campaign” against both Gebru and Mitchell.

Google has declared that Mitchell’s firing was the result of her moving electronic files outside of the company. But Alex Hanna, a Google employee, has accused the company of “running a smear campaign” against both Gebru and Mitchell.

Image: geralt on Pixabay

After being heavily criticised across social media and from thousands of employees, Google has begun work to address the problems Gebru and Mitchell had with the company’s internal review processes. They are trialing a questionnaire that aims to reduce discrimination in the article vetting process, which was one of the biggest issues the two ex-employees had with the company.

Without the two heads of their ethics team available within the company to supervise this undertaking, however, it is likely this is an attempt to quell the outrage within the company, rather than a serious move to reform internal discrimination.

'I write an email asking for things, I get fired, and then after a 3 month investigation, they say they should probably do some of the things I presumably got fired asking for, without holding anyone accountable for their actions'.

Dr Gebru summarised Google’s approach, saying 'I write an email asking for things, I get fired, and then after a 3 month investigation, they say they should probably do some of the things I presumably got fired asking for, without holding anyone accountable for their actions'.

'I think we're all used to this at this point. E.g. the call for "unity" and "moving forward" when asking for accountability for the insurrection. That’s what people in power do'.

Many more employees are currently being targeted by high-level Google staff members for their dissenting opinions, and emails are being monitored within the company for 'disruptive language'.

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