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.”
Yesterday was my last day at Google. I left because Google's mistreatment of @timnitGebru and @RealAbril crossed a personal red line I wrote down when I started the job. I know I gained a lot from Google, but I also gained a lot from both of their work, and they were wronged.
— Vinesh Kannan (@vineshgkannan) February 3, 2021
Gebru is a widely-respected AI ethicist, who’s best known for a landmark study on race and gender biases in facial recognition systems.
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.”
Take it from ME- their most successful BLACK QUEER WOMAN recruiter who they fired in the middle of a MF pandemic because they were tired of hearing me call them out on their racist bullshit.
— Real Abril🌈 (@RealAbril) December 21, 2020
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.
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.