Two Google Staff Resign, Citing Timnit Gebru ‘Firing’

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Staff unrest continues with resignation of two Google engineers, both of whom cited ‘firing’ of AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru

Google continues to face the fallout of its messy removal of a prominent female AI ethics researcher, Timnit Gebru.

This week Reuters reported that an engineering director and a software developer have resigned from Alphabet’s Google over her dismissal.

Gebru is best known for her work on algorithmic bias, particularly with facial recognition technology.

Gebru ‘firing’

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.

Google resignations

Now according to Reuters, two Google employees have resigned over the issue.

David Baker, a director focused on user safety, reportedly left Google last month after 16 years because Gebru’s exit “extinguished my desire to continue as a Googler,” he said in a letter seen by Reuters.

“We cannot say we believe in diversity, and then ignore the conspicuous absence of many voices from within our walls,” Baker reportedly added.

The second person to leave is software engineer Vinesh Kannan who said on Twitter that he had left the company on Tuesday because Google mistreated Gebru and April Christina Curley, a recruiter who has said she was wrongly fired last year.

Both Gebru and Curley identify as Black.

“Yesterday was my last day at Google. I left because Google’s mistreatment of @timnitGebru and @RealAbril crossed a personal red line I wrote down when I started the job,” he tweeted. “I know I gained a lot from Google, but I also gained a lot from both of their work, and they were wronged.”

Google declined to comment, but reportedly cited its previous statements that it is looking to restore employees’ trust after Gebru’s departure, and that it disputes Curley’s accusation.

Ongoing 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.

In early January more than 800 Google staff, for the first time, joined a trade union.

The ‘Alphabet Workers Union’ was launched with the existing ‘Communications Workers Union of America’, and is ‘demanding change at work’.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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