Google Investigates Dismissal Of AI Expert Timnit Gebru

Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai has reportedly told staff that the firm will examine the departure of a prominent female AI ethics researcher.

Dr Timnit Gebru is best known for her work on algorithmic bias, particularly with facial recognition technology. In 2018, she 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.

Last week Dr 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.

Timnit Gebru

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 at Google Research, said she could not meet Gebru’s conditions and accepted her resignation as a result.

Growing support

Gebru’s position was initially supported by the Google Walkout Twitter account, which is run by current and former employees.

But support grew for the AI ethics expert, after an open letter demanding transparency has now been signed by more than 4,500 people, including DeepMind researchers and UK academics.

It was signed by staff at Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Netflix as well as several scientists from Google’s DeepMind.

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

Other experts and academics in the field who have added their support for Dr Gebru.

Google assessment

Now it has emerged that Sundar Pichai said that Google needs to “assess the circumstances” that led up to Timnit Gebru leaving last week, and will examine “where we could have improved and led a more respectful process.”

“We will begin a review of what happened to identify all the points where we can learn – considering everything from de-escalation strategies to new processes we can put in place,” he wrote in a memo to Googlers that was first posted online by news website Axios.

A Google spokeswoman said the company had no comment.

Until early December, Gebru was the co-leader of Google’s ethical AI team.

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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