A Prominent AI Ethics Researcher Says Google Fired Her

Last month, Google artificial intelligence researcher Timnit Gebru received disturbing news from a senior manager. She says the manager asked her to either retract or remove her name from a research paper she had coauthored, because an internal review had found the contents objectionable.The paper discussed ethical issues raised by recent advances in AI technology that works with language , which Google has said is important to the future of its business . Gebru says she objected because the process was unscholarly. On Wednesday she said she was fired. A Google spokesperson said she was not fired but resigned, and declined further comment.
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.”The controversy highlights tension between the human and ethical consequences of AI development and the fact much leading AI research is underwritten by companies motivated by the technology’s profit-making potential. Gebru is a superstar of a recent movement in AI research to consider the ethical and societal impacts of the technology. She helped assemble and lead a small team of computer and social scientists dedicated to ethics research inside Google’s AI research group.
Gebru says she pushed back on the treatment of her work out of concern for the future of AI ethics research at Google and people who work on it. “You’re not going to have papers that make the company happy all the time and don’t point out problems,” she says. “That’s antithetical to what it means to be that kind of researcher.”Gebru, a Black woman, also suspects her history of speaking up inside Google about the lack of diversity among the company’s workforce and the treatment of minority employees may have contributed to her dismissal. Google employees have protested and walked out in recent years over the company’s treatment of women and minorities and over its ethical stances on AI technology.
News that Gebru was suddenly an ex-Googler came the same day the National Labor Relations Board said Google wrongly fired two workers last year who were involved in labor organizing. One of them tweeted in support of Gebru Wednesday, hoping the NLRB would “acknowledge what is happening to Timnit sooner.”