Washington Post Follow-up on the Unfortunate Saga of Timnit Gebru & Google

Timnit Gebru is one of the most high-profile Black women in her field and a powerful voice in the new field of ethical artificial intelligence (AI), which seeks to identity issues around bias, fairness, and responsibility. (Photo: Google AI research scientist Timnit Gebru speaks on Sept. 7, 2018, at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco/Getty Images)

The Washington Post

By Nitasha Tiku

Google hired Timnit Gebru to be an outspoken critic of unethical AI. Then she was fired for it.

Two months ago, Google promoted Timnit Gebru, co-lead of a group focused on ethical artificial intelligence, after she earned a high score on her annual employee appraisal. Gebru is one of the most high-profile Black women in her field and a powerful voice in the new field of ethical AI, which seeks to identity issues around bias, fairness, and responsibility.

In his peer review of Gebru, Jeff Dean, the head of Google Artificial Intelligence, left only one comment when asked what she could do to have a greater impact, according to documents viewed by The Washington Post: Ensure that her team helps make a promising new software tool for processing human language “consistent with our AI Principles.”

In an email thanking Dean for his review, Gebru let him know that her team was already working on a paper about the ethical risks around the same language models, which are essential to understanding the complexity of language in search queries. On Oct. 20, Dean wrote that he wanted to see a draft, adding, “definitely not my area of expertise, but would definitely learn from reading it.”

Six weeks later, Google fired Gebru while she was on vacation.

“I can’t imagine anybody else who would be safer than me,” Gebru said. “I was super visible. I’m well known in the research community, but also the regulatory space. I have a lot of grass-roots support — and this is what happened.”

Google’s star AI ethics researcher, one of a few Black women in the field, says she was fired for a critical email

In an internal memo that he later posted online explaining Gebru’s departure, Dean told employees that the paper “didn’t meet our bar for publication” and “ignored too much relevant research” on recent positive improvements to the technology. Gebru’s superiors had insisted that she and the other Google co-authors either retract the paper or remove their names. Employees in Google Research, the department that houses the ethical AI team, say authors who make claims about the benefits of large language models have not received the same scrutiny during the approval process as those who highlight the shortcomings.

Her abrupt firing shows that Google is pushing back on the kind of scrutiny that it claims to welcome, according to interviews with Gebru, current Google employees, and emails and documents viewed by The Post.

It raises doubts about Silicon Valley’s ability to self-police, especially when it comes to advanced technology that is largely unregulated and being deployed in the real world despite demonstrable bias toward marginalized groups. Already, AI systems shape decision-making in law enforcement, employment opportunity and access to health care worldwide.

That made Gebru’s perspective essential in a field that is predominantly White, Asian and male. Women comprised only 15 percent of the AI research staff at Facebook and 10 percent at Google, according to a 2018 report in Wired magazine. At Google, Black women make up 1.6 percent of the workforce.

Although Google publicly celebrated Gebru’s work identifying problems with AI, it disenfranchised the work internally by keeping it hierarchically distinct from other AI initiatives, not heeding the group’s advice, and not creating an incentive structure to put in practice the ethical findings, Gebru and other employees said.

Google declined to comment, but noted that in addition to the dozen or so staff members on Gebru’s team, 200 employees are focused on responsible AI.

Google has said that it did not fire Gebru, but accepted her “resignation,” citing her request to explain who at Google demanded that the paper be retracted, according to Dean’s memo. The company also blamed an email Gebru wrote to an employee resource group for women and allies at Google working in AI as inappropriate for a manager. The message warned the group that pushing for diversity was no use until Google leadership took accountability.

Federal study confirms racial bias of many facial-recognition systems, casts doubt on their expanding use

Rumman Chowdhury, a former global lead for responsible AI at Accenture and chief executive of Parity, a start-up that helps companies figure out how to audit algorithms, said there is a fundamental lack of respect within the industry for work on AI ethics compared with equivalent roles in other industries, such as model risk managers in quantitative hedge funds or threat analysts in cybersecurity.

“It’s being framed as the AI optimists and the people really building the stuff [versus] the rest of us negative Nellies, raining on their parade,” Chowdhury said. “You can’t help but notice, it’s like the boys will make the toys and then the girls will have to clean up.”

Google, which for decades evangelized an office culture that embraced employee dissent, has fired outspoken workers in recent years and shut down forums for exchange and questioning.

Nearly 3,000 Google employees and more than 4,000 academics, engineers and industry colleagues have signed a petition calling Gebru’s termination an act of retaliation by Google. Last week, nine Democratic lawmakers, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Cory Booker (N.J.) and Rep. Yvette D. Clarke (N.Y.), sponsor of the Algorithmic Accountability Act, a bill that would require companies to audit and correct race and gender bias in its algorithms, sent a letter to Google chief executive Sundar Pichai asking the company to affirm its commitment to research freedom and diversity.

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Spotlight: The Media Firestorm Concerning AI Researcher Timnit Gebru & Google

Timnit Gebru, an internationally respected Google researcher, took to Twitter last week to air her mistreatment in the hands of Google officials who sought to silence her concerning her latest research that discovered racial bias in current Artificial Intelligence technology. (Photo via @GoogleWalkout/Twitter)

Tadias Magazine

By Tadias Staff

Updated: December 8th, 2020

New York (TADIAS) — Last week Ethiopian American Timnit Gebru– whom we have featured several time in Tadias including when she was a graduate student at Stanford University and was named by Forbes magazine among 21 incredible women behind artificial intelligence research that’s fueling new discoveries in the field — took to Twitter to air her mistreatment in the hands of Google officials who sought to silence her concerning her latest research that discovered racial bias in current Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) technology.

Judging by the widely circulated media coverage of the unfortunate episode and the manner in which Google handled the rushed dismissal of one of its top scientists and an internationally renown Ethical A.I. researchers in the world, to say that the corporation made a historical mistake and long-lasting damage to its well cultivated image as a forward-looking technology company is an understatement.

As The New York Times reported, Timnit, “a well-respected Google researcher said she was fired by the company after criticizing its approach to minority hiring and the biases built into today’s artificial intelligence systems. Timnit Gebru, who was a co-leader of Google’s Ethical A.I. team, said in a tweet on Wednesday evening that she was fired because of an email she had sent a day earlier to a group that included company employees. In the email, reviewed by The New York Times, she expressed exasperation over Google’s response to efforts by her and other employees to increase minority hiring and draw attention to bias in artificial intelligence.”

Timnit Gebru, a respected researcher at Google, questioned biases built into artificial intelligence systems. (The New York Times)

Wired magazine added: “Timnit Gebru’s tweets about the incident Wednesday night triggered an outpouring of support from AI researchers at Google and elsewhere, including top universities and companies such as Microsoft and chipmaker Nvidia. Many said Google had tarnished its reputation in the crucial field, which CEO Sundar Pichai says underpins the company’s business. Late Thursday, more than 200 Google employees signed an open letter calling on the company to release details of its handling of Gebru’s paper and to commit to “research integrity and academic freedom.”

“We have been pleading for representation but there are barely any Black people in Google Research,” says Timnit Gebru, who says she was fired Wednesday. (GETTY IMAGES)

In a scathing email to her colleagues at Google that was later published in full on the Silicon Valley news website Platformer, Timnit pointed out how top management at the company has not honored its commitment to employ more minority and woman professionals. “Your life starts getting worse when you start advocating for underrepresented people. You start making the other leaders upset,” her email stated. “There is no way more documents or more conversations will achieve anything.” She concluded: “So if you would like to change things, I suggest focusing on leadership accountability and thinking through what types of pressures can also be applied from the outside. For instance, I believe that the Congressional Black Caucus is the entity that started forcing tech companies to report their diversity numbers. Writing more documents and saying things over and over again will tire you out but no one will listen.”

Timnit Gebru, speaking at TechCrunch disrupt in 2018. (Getty Images)

As of today nearly 4,000 people including 1534 Google employees and 2196 academic, industry, and civil society supporters have signed an online petition titled “We stand with Timnit Gebru” and calling “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.”

Below are links to the stories from The New York Times, Wired magazine, Timnit’s email as published on the Platformer website as well as the support letter signed by thousands of her professional colleagues from the around the world:

Google Researcher Says She Was Fired Over Paper Highlighting Bias in A.I. (NYT)

A Prominent AI Ethics Researcher Says Google Fired Her (Wired)

The withering email that got an ethical AI researcher fired at Google (Platformer)

We stand with Timnit Gebru (Google Walkout For Real Change)


Timnit Gebru: Among Incredible Women Advancing A.I. Research

Spotlight: Blacks in AI Co-Founders Timnit Gebru & Rediet Abebe

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