Google sparks controversy in the tech industry after its abrupt termination of Timnit Gebru, a leader in the field of AI ethics who voiced her doubts on the company’s commitments to empower black computer scientists.
The tweets following the story
Gebru was a prominent scholar in AI known for her advocacies in workplace inclusivity. With her previous position in Google, she openly showed her support for the company’s initiative to accept diversity within its offices. Even internally, she continued to monitor and express her opinions about improper practices that did not align with Google’s commitment.
Just recently, Gebru took to Twitter to express her disappointment in Google’s decision to push her out of the company after a dispute over a research paper examining the societal dangers of an emerging branch of AI.
After the Tweets went up, over 1,200 employees from Google signed an open letter faulting the company for racism. They also allege that such a move by Google could be considered as “unprecedented research censorship.”
Removing Google’s name from Gebru’s study
With an impressive career in AI ethics, Gebru made a name for herself in the industry as co-founder of Black in AI, an advocacy group which promotes black employment and leadership. In 2018, she published a landmark study that provided evidence on racial and gender bias in facial recognition software.
Her most recent work is a paper examining the risks of developing systems that create human-like text by analyzing databases of human language. Google’s own new technology was mentioned, alongside an enumeration of the potential danger of bias and the environmental cost of running models.
Managers at Google were quick to request Gebru to omit the company’s name from the paper, to which Gebru objected.
Gebru wasn’t one to keep her silence. Following the request, she sent an email to Google about her frustrations, which bore the subject line: “Silencing Marginalized Voices in Every Way Possible.” Such email was the cause of her termination from the company, according to her tweets.
Google’s response to the backlash
Google chief of AI research Jeff Dean released the company’s statement on the issue immediately, saying that while the paper had valid points, it was not free from gaps that made the tech giant respond the way it did.
“For example,” he shared, “it didn’t include important findings on how models can be made more efficient and actually reduce overall environmental impact, and it didn’t take into account some recent work at Google and elsewhere on mitigating bias.”
Peers backing up Gebru
Since the escalation of the issue in industry, Gebru’s peers have stayed firm about their support for their colleague. “Ousting Timnit for having the audacity to demand research integrity severely undermines Google’s credibility for supporting rigorous research on AI ethics and algorithmic auditing,” shared Gebru’s previous co-author, Joy Buolamwini a poet of code at MIT Media Lab.
“She deserves more than Google knew how to give, and now she is an all-star free agent who will continue to transform the tech industry,” she added.