Black Ethical AI Researcher Says Google Fired Her Over a Critical Email

Illustration for article titled Black Ethical AI Researcher Says Google Fired Her Over a Critical Email
Photo: Kimberly White / Stringer (Getty Images)

Timnit Gebru, a co-leader of the Ethical Artificial Intelligence team at Google, said she was fired for sending an email that was allegedly deemed “inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager.” Gebru, an Ethiopian-American computer scientist who does work surrounding artificial intelligence and technological biases at the tech giant, has a history of criticizing tech companies for a lack of diversity, as well as for advocating for more Black roles in artificial intelligence.

Gebru says that the incident that led to her firing had to do with Google’s request that she retract an AI ethics paper that she had co-written with six other researchers, four of whom were also Google employees, and that had been submitted for consideration for a conference. If Gebru wouldn’t retract the paper, the company wanted her to remove the names of the other Google employees. Understandably, Gebru was taken aback, and asked Google Research vice president Megan Kacholia for an explanation, explaining that without a further conversation about how this situation was handled, she would plan to resign from the company after a transition period.

While dealing with this issue, Gebru had also sent a message in an email group for researchers called “Google Brain Women and Allies,” commenting that the report others were working on about how few women Google had hired during the pandemic was unlikely to make an impact because of a lack of accountability.

“Stop writing your documents because it doesn’t make a difference,” Gebru wrote in the email, which was obtained by Bloomberg News. “There is no way more documents or more conversations will achieve anything.”

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Gebru says the day after sending the email to the group, she was fired over email by Jeff Dean, the head of Google’s AI division, who said that the company couldn’t meet her demands and understood her decision to leave Google—despite the fact that she had never directly offered her resignation.

On Thursday, Dean sent a companywide email encouraging employees to continue working on Google’s diversity, equity, and inclusion programs.

“Given Timnit’s role as a respected researcher and a manager in our Ethical AI team, I feel badly that Timnit has gotten to a place where she feels this way about the work we’re doing,” he wrote. “I also feel badly that hundreds of you received an email just this week from Timnit telling you to stop work on critical DEI programs. Please don’t. I understand the frustration about the pace of progress, but we have important work ahead and we need to keep at it.”

Inioluwa Deborah Raji, an AI researcher who worked with Timnit, told the Washington Post that her impromptu firing could threaten Google’s attempt to present themselves as prioritizing inclusion and ethical research.

“People would think, ‘Timnit’s there, so it’s evidence that there’s an openness I’d have to work with people there on these issues,’” Raji said. “Firing her in such a disrespectful way reveals that perhaps Google’s commitment to some of these issues was not as legitimate as previously believed.”

Freelance writer & night blogger at Jezebel. Lover of television, astrology, and sandwiches.

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