Google Staff Seek Removal Of VP Involved In Timnit Gebru ‘Firing’

Google continues to face pressure over the ‘firing’ of prominent female AI ethics researcher, Dr Timnit Gebru.

Staff on Google’s Ethical AI research team on Wednesday reportedly demanded the company sideline vice president Megan Kacholia, as well as commit to greater academic freedom, Reuters reported.

The call is a major escalation of the fallout of from the departure of AI ethics scientist Dr Gebru.

‘Fired’ researcher

Dr 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.

But earlier this month 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.

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.

Institutionally racist?

Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai told staff this week that the firm will examine her departure.

Pichai reportedly 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.”

But this has not satisfied Google staff and they have called for Kacholia to be removed from the team’s management chain, after she allegedly excluded Gebru’s boss from the decision to fire her, according to an internal document seen by Reuters.

Separately, US Representative Yvette Clarke, Senator Elizabeth Warren and seven other members of Congress wrote a public letter on Wednesday to Pichai asking about plans to review Gebru’s firing and policies for publishing research.

Dr Gebru told the BBC earlier this week that Google and other big tech firms are ‘institutionally racist’.

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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