Google Appoints Executive At Troubled AI Research Group

Google has appointed a black executive to head up AI research at the firm, after the ‘dismissal’ of a prominent AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru in late 2020.

Google on Thursday named Marian Croak, one of its few Black executives, to oversee research on responsible artificial intelligence (AI), Reuters reported.

Google reportedly confirmed Croak will manage 10 teams, including a dozen scientists studying the ethical considerations of automated technologies.

Timnit Gebru

Ethical AI co-lead Timnit Gebru was best known for her work on algorithmic bias, particularly with facial recognition technology.

In 2018, Gebru co-authored a paper that highlighted the higher error rates for identifying darker-skinned people, partly because facial recognition AI algorithms were mostly trained with datasets that were overwhelmingly white.

But in early December Gebru claimed that Google had effectively fired her over an email she sent to colleagues, but Google disputes this and insisted she didn’t follow procedure.

The issue began when Gebru alleged that Google was trying to get her to retract a research paper, because she had co-authored a paper with four other Googlers as well as some external collaborators that needed to go through Google’s review process.

Google however alleged that this particular paper was only shared with a day’s notice before its deadline, and that it normally requires two weeks to conduct a review.

But instead of awaiting reviewer feedback, the paper was approved for submission and submitted.

Gebru then emailed a Google unit (the Brain Women and Allies listserv), in which she voiced frustration that managers were trying to get her to retract the research paper.

After the email went out, Gebru reportedly told managers that certain conditions had to be met in order for her to stay at the company.

Otherwise, she would have to work on a transition plan.

But Google called her bluff, and a senior Google official (Megan Kacholia) at Google Research, said she could not meet Gebru’s conditions and accepted her resignation as a result.

Staff tensions

In the aftermath of Gebru’s departure, staff on Google’s ethical AI research team in a major escalation, reportedly demanded the firm sideline vice president Megan Kacholia, as well as commit to greater academic freedom..

That call came amid an outpouring of support for the dismissed AI ethics expert, after an open letter demanded transparency was signed by more than 4,500 people, including DeepMind researchers and UK academics, as well as staff from Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Netflix.

And to make matters worse, members of Dr Gebru’s own team at Google also published a second open letter challenging the company’s account of her dismissal.

The furore even saw Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai telling Google staff in December that the circumstances surrounding Gebru’s departure would be examined.

But just before Christmas, it was reported that scientific papers generated internally at the search engine giant were now subjected to “sensitive topics” review, and in at least three cases authors were requested to refrain from casting Google technology in a negative light.

Earlier this month two Google staff, an engineering director (David Baker) and a software developer (Vinesh Kannan), resigned from Google over Gebru’s dismissal.

Ongoing resentment?

Google will be hoping the appointment of Marian Croak will help ease tensions.

Croak, a vice president of engineering who will report to Google AI chief Jeff Dean, told staff in a Thursday meeting that she respected Gebru and that what happened to her was unfortunate.

In a video on Google’s blog, she also acknowledged dissent in the research areas now in her purview.

But it seems that this appointment has not gone down well in some quarters.

Google employee Dr Alex Hanna on Twitter repiortedly called the news about Croak “a betrayal,” saying it occurred behind the Ethical AI team’s back and did not address demands the team made after Gebru’s firing.

And Gebru herself made clear her thoughts on the appointment.

“Marian is a highly accomplished trailblazing scientist that I had admired and even confided in,” Gebru reportedly said. “It’s incredibly hurtful to see her legitimizing what Jeff Dean and his subordinates have done to me and my team.”

Croak, who previously was working on site reliability for Google, will also oversee teams doing research related to accessibility, social good and fairness in health algorithms.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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