Main image of article Google Firing A.I. Ethicist Ignites Diversity Controversy

A prominent A.I. researcher at Google is claiming she was fired for an email in which she criticized the company’s approach to hiring and managing employees from underrepresented groups, among other issues. 

Timnit Gebru was co-lead of Google’s Ethical Artificial Intelligence Team, which is tasked with improving A.I. in a socially responsible manner; she’s famous within the A.I. community for her work on a 2018 paper exploring algorithmic bias, which is essential reading if you’re interested in anything to do with training software on large datasets. News of the firing quickly appeared in The New York TimesThe Verge, and OneZero.

In addition to her work with bias in artificial intelligence, Gebru co-founded Black in A.I., which aims to diversify the A.I. field. Her email, which was originally sent to the Google Brain Women and Allies internal listserv, is quite lengthy and worth reading (hat tip to Platformer for posting it in its entirety). In essence, she says that Google management wanted her to retract a research paper that pointed out flaws in language technology, namely that biased language inputted into a large-scale A.I. language model (LLM) can generate biased language.  

Here’s what happened next, according to her email: 

Have you ever heard of someone getting “feedback” on a paper through a privileged and confidential document to HR? Does that sound like a standard procedure to you or does it just happen to people like me who are constantly dehumanized?

Imagine this: You’ve sent a paper for feedback to 30+ researchers, you’re awaiting feedback from PR & Policy who you gave a heads up before you even wrote the work saying “we’re thinking of doing this”, working on a revision plan figuring out how to address different feedback from people, haven’t heard from PR & Policy besides them asking you for updates (in 2 months). A week before you go out on vacation, you see a meeting pop up at 4:30pm PST on your calendar (this popped up at around 2pm). No one would tell you what the meeting was about in advance. Then in that meeting your manager’s manager tells you “it has been decided” that you need to retract this paper by next week, Nov. 27, the week when almost everyone would be out (and a date which has nothing to do with the conference process). You are not worth having any conversations about this, since you are not someone whose humanity (let alone expertise recognized by journalists, governments, scientists, civic organizations such as the electronic frontiers foundation etc) is acknowledged or valued in this company.

Gebru continued to push for an explanation, she added, but none was forthcoming. And that, she wrote, was just one example of continuous issues at the company over diversity, including a lack of leadership accountability.

A few days after she posted that email, Google terminated her employment. Jeff Dean, Google’s Senior Vice President of Research, suggested in an email to employees (also available in its entirety on Platformer) that Gebru had resigned: 

A cross functional team then reviewed the paper as part of our regular process and the authors were informed that it didn’t meet our bar for publication and were given feedback about why. It ignored too much relevant research — for example, it talked about the environmental impact of large models, but disregarded subsequent research showing much greater efficiencies.  Similarly, it raised concerns about bias in language models, but didn’t take into account recent research to mitigate these issues. We acknowledge that the authors were extremely disappointed with the decision that Megan and I ultimately made, especially as they’d already submitted the paper. 

Timnit responded with an email requiring that a number of conditions be met in order for her to continue working at Google, including revealing the identities of every person who Megan and I had spoken to and consulted as part of the review of the paper and the exact feedback. Timnit wrote that if we didn’t meet these demands, she would leave Google and work on an end date. We accept and respect her decision to resign from Google.

So where do things stand right now? 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. 4, it had been signed by 591 Googlers and 823 “academic, industry, and civil society supporters.”

Google employees have engaged in collective action against management before, including one large-scale walkout in 2018 over inequality and sexual harassment. As debates over diversity and inclusion continue to grip the tech giant’s workforce, it’s worth asking whether another walkout (or similar protest) is in the near future.