The row within Google’s Ethical AI team is set to escalate after a second researcher was fired in the space of three months.
Lead artificial intelligence ethics researcher Margaret Mitchell was fired on Friday following the tech giant’s controversial dismissal in December of her black colleague Dr. Timnit Gebru.
Gebru, an outspoken diversity advocate and well-respected researcher in the field of ethics and the use of artificial intelligence, said she was fired from Google for sending an internal email accusing the company of “silencing marginalized voices.”
In a statement about Mitchell’s dismissal, Google said it had “confirmed that there were multiple violations of our code of conduct, as well as of our security policies, which included the exfiltration of confidential business-sensitive documents and private data of other employees.”
Sources suggest that Mitchell may have been looking for corporate correspondence that could have supported Gebru’s claim of harassment and discrimination.
Mitchell had been supportive of Gebru’s call for greater diversity and inclusion among Google’s research staff and expressed concern that the company was starting to censor papers critical of its products.
In December Gebru said she was fired from Google for sending an internal email accusing the company of “silencing marginalized voices.”
She sent the email after a research paper she had co-authored was rejected by Google bosses.
Gebru is highly regarded for her work on racial bias in technology such as facial recognition and has criticized systems that fail to recognize black faces.
How To Stop Artificial Intelligence From Marginalizing Communities? | Timnit Gebru | TEDxCollegePark
Google initially disputed her version of events. But later the company’s CEO Sundar Pichai apologized for Gebru’s departure telling staff in an email: “We need to accept responsibility for the fact that a prominent Black, female leader with immense talent left Google unhappily.”
Her departure raised questions about Google’s commitment to diversity and the responsible development of AI technology.
Hundreds of staff signed a letter backing Gebru and accused the company of racism and censorship.
Several commentators on Twitter also rallied behind her using the hashtag #BelieveBlackWomen.
Among her supporters was Mitchell.
She co-authored the paper which led to Gebru’s dispute with Google. It claimed that AI mimics language that could hurt marginalized populations.
Mitchell and Gebru also co-led Google’s ethical AI team.
An insider said that Google AI research director Zoubin Ghahramani and a company lawyer informed Mitchell’s team of her firing on Friday in a meeting called at short notice.
The leading researcher announced her departure in a short tweet which said simply “I’m fired.”
— MMitchell (@mmitchell_ai) February 19, 2021
Mitchell’s dismissal comes after Google named one of its few Black executives, Marian Croak, as head of a new center of expertise on responsible AI within Google Research.
The company also announced that it is changing its research and diversity policies after completing an internal investigation into Gebru’s dismissal.
It intends to tie the pay of certain executives to diversity and inclusivity goals. It’s also making changes to how sensitive employee exits are managed.
According to Reuters, Croak will manage 10 teams, including a dozen scientists who are doing research into accessibility, social good, and the fairness of health algorithms, among other things.
She acknowledged the fact that many employees were unhappy with how AI research was being conducted.
In a video on Google’s blog, she said: “There’s quite a lot of conflict right now within the field, and it can be polarizing at times, and what I’d like to do is just have people have the conversation in a more diplomatic way.”
However, she may face an uphill battle in her efforts to calm tensions.
Google employee Alex Hanna wrote on Twitter that Croak’s appointment was “a betrayal,” saying it occurred behind the Ethical AI team’s back and did not address demands the team made after Gebru’s firing.
Gebru said in a statement, “Marian is a highly accomplished trailblazing scientist that I had admired and even confided in. It’s incredibly hurtful to see her legitimizing what [Google] has done to me and my team.”