Human-centric AI news and analysis

This article was published on February 5, 2021


Google engineers quit after the company fired its star AI ethics researcher

Timnit Gebru's exit has sparked an outcry at Google

Google engineers quit after the company fired its star AI ethics researcher
Thomas Macaulay
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Thomas Macaulay

Writer at Neural by TNW — Thomas covers AI in all its iterations. Likes Werner Herzog films and Arsenal FC. Writer at Neural by TNW — Thomas covers AI in all its iterations. Likes Werner Herzog films and Arsenal FC.

Two Google engineers have quit the company over the firing of AI researcher Timnit Gebru, whose controversial termination in December sparked an internal backlash about ethics and diversity.

David Baker, who led the engineering team for Google Trust and Safety, said he was resigning after more than 16 years because Gebru’s departure had “extinguished [his] desire to continue as a Googler.”

Software engineer Vinesh Kannan has also left the company. He tweeted that Google’s treatment of Gebru and diversity recruiter April Christina Curley “had crossed a personal red line.”

Gebru is a widely-respected AI ethicist, who’s best known for a landmark study on race and gender biases in facial recognition systems.

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She lost her job at Google after the company asked her to retract a research paper about the risks of large-scale language models — which are used in many of the firm’s products. 

Gebru then sent an email to colleagues expressing her frustration with the response and the company’s wider issues around diversity.

In a letter dated January 5 that was posted to LinkedIn, Baker said her exit had undermined his efforts to build trustworthy products and support diversity.

The departure of Timnit, a world-renowned Black female researcher in the ethical application of computer technology working on a paper critical of Google technology that Google would not approve, undermines both of these influences.

Curley has been a prominent public defender of Gebru and critic of Google’s diversity efforts.

In December, she said she was fired because the company was “tired of hearing me call them out on their racist bullshit.”

Baker cited the company’s lack of diversity in his resignation letter:

We cannot say we believe in making a more understanding, informed world, and then ignore how our products amplify biases. We cannot say we believe in diversity, and then ignore the conspicuous absence of many voices from within our walls.

The resignations of Baker and Kannan come amid mounting internal dissent about Google’s AI work.

Thousands of employees and external supporters have signed an open letter expressing solidarity with Gebru and calling for Google to honor the commitments made in its AI Principles.

The new Alphabet Workers Union also cited Gebru’s exit as one of the reasons for its formation.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai has attempted to subdue their anger by pledging to investigate her departure and apologizing for it causing staff  “to question their place at Google.” But the tensions continue to escalate.

 

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