Former Google Scientist Timnit Gebru Founds AI Institute

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One year after her controversial exit from Alphabet’s Google, AI scientist Timnit Gebru launches small lab to continue her research

The former Google computer scientist whose controversial exit from the search engine giant this time last year, has resurfaced in a new role.

Reuters has reported that Timnit Gebru on Thursday revealed she has launched a small lab to continue her research work freely.

Indeed, the Distributed AI Research Institute has reportedly raised $3.7 million so far, and aims to critically study services from big tech companies, as well as propose AI-based solutions to issues such as food insecurity and climate change, Gebru reportedly said.

Distributed AI Research Institute

The Distributed AI Research Institute (DAIR) joins a number of other projects such as the Algorithmic Justice League that are advancing ethical use of AI.

For many years now critics have worried about the ethical use and safeguards for AI and facial recognition systems, along with credit scoring, which could lead to mass surveillance and racial discrimination.

According to the Reuters report, Gebru has hired a fellow based in South Africa and expects to add other researchers next year. They will publish studies and educate activists and lawmakers globally.

“I want to make sure DAIR is not just working on research papers,” Gebru said. “I want to be an institute that realises you have to engage with various groups of people.”

Gebru reportedly admitted sustaining the freedom to explore AI subjects without becoming beholden to sponsors or other powers will be the challenge.

Initial backers include the MacArthur, Ford and Rockefeller foundations.

Controversial departure

The creation of DAIR comes nearly a year after Gebru’s controversial departure from Google’s AI research team in early December 2020.

AI ethics researcher Gebru alleged that Google had ‘fired’ her over an email she sent to colleagues, but Google disputes this and insisted she didn’t follow procedure.

Google instead said it accepted Gebru’s resignation after she threatened to resign.

Gebru however maintained that Google fired her for criticising the firm’s lack of workforce diversity and for opposing managers who objected to publishing a paper she co-wrote on potential social and environmental costs of language technology.

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

That call came amid an outpouring of support forGebru at the time, and an open letter demanding 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.

In February 2021 two staff resigned from Google, citing Gebru’s dismissal as the reason for leaving.

Weeks later Google appointed one of its few black executives, Marian Croak, to oversee research on responsible artificial intelligence (AI).

But almost immediately after Croak’s appointment, Google fired researcher Margaret Mitchell, following an investigation into misuse of corporate email.

Mitchell had collaborated on the paper that prompted Gebru’s departure.

In January, Google had revoked Mitchell’s corporate email access for reportedly using automated scripts to find examples of mistreatment of Gebru.

In April Google research manager Samy Bengio resigned. Bengio was the highest profile staffer to resign over the matter, and was a 14 year Google veteran.

Bengio previously defended Timnit Gebru and scientist Margaret Mitchell, and wrote on Facebook that he was stunned that Gebru, whom he was managing, was removed from the company without him being consulted.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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