Google CEO Sundar Pichai has apologized for the circumstances surrounding the termination of a famous A.I. expert who questioned the company’s approach to diversity.
That expert, Timnit Gebru, was co-lead of Google’s Ethical Artificial Intelligence Team, tasked with improving A.I. in a socially responsible manner. She claims that Google’s management wanted her to take her name off a paper that pointed out how a large-scale A.I. language model (LLM) can generate biased results; when she refused, they fired her.
Google insists that Gebru resigned, which she denies. In his internal memo to Googlers, Pichai didn’t state which side of the story he believed, using the ultra-neutral “departure” to describe her exit. The full text of the memo is available on Axios, which published it first; a few excerpts really jump out, including the opener:
One of the things I’ve been most proud of this year is how Googlers from across the company came together to address our racial equity commitments. It’s hard, important work, and while we’re steadfast in our commitment to do better, we have a lot to learn and improve. An important piece of this is learning from our experiences like the departure of Dr. Timnit Gebru.
I’ve heard the reaction to Dr. Gebru’s departure loud and clear: it seeded doubts and led some in our community to question their place at Google. I want to say how sorry I am for that, and I accept the responsibility of working to restore your trust.
Pichai then breaks down a few courses of action, including a review of the circumstances leading up to Gebru’s exit, and a re-evaluation of the company’s approach to diversity. “It’s incredibly important to me that our Black, women, and underrepresented Googlers know that we value you and you do belong at Google,” he wrote. “And the burden of pushing us to do better should not fall on your shoulders.”
Pichai no doubt wants to avoid a repeat of Google employees’ large-scale walkout in 2018 over inequality and sexual harassment. At the time, he also pledged to listen to feedback and turn ideas “into action.” However, Gebru’s departure—and its ripple effects throughout the organization—suggests that Google still has quite a bit of work in front of it when it comes to issues of inclusion and diversity.
And make no mistake about it: Those ripples are pretty sizable. Over on Google Walkout for Real Change’s Medium page, there’s a petition of support for Gebru, complete with a demand for an “unequivocal commitment to research integrity and academic freedom.” As of Dec. 10, it had been signed by 2,351 Googlers and 3,729 “academic, industry, and civil society supporters.”
Pichai closes his memo by claiming that the Gebru situation and Google’s position on diversity are top priorities going forward: “I want to recommit to translating the energy that we’ve seen this year into real change as we move forward into 2021 and beyond.” But what that means on a tactical level remains to be seen, especially given how Google was already struggling to diversify its ranks of technologists and senior management.