Timnit Gebru: Tensions within Google’s AI ethics group rise as it sends requests to Sundar Pichai


The letter, sent to CEO Sundar Pichai, is titled “The Future of Ethical AI at Google”. It outlines the steps the researchers want the company to take in order to “rebuild trust” with the team and create an environment in which they can continue their work. The team studies the ethical implications of artificial intelligence and advises the company on AI policies and products.

This follows the sudden exit of Timnit Gebru, who until early December was co-head of Google’s Ethical AI team. She was also one of the few black employees at the company as a whole (3.7% of Google employees are black, according to the company’s 2020 annual diversity report) – let alone in its AI division. . The researcher is also a co-founder of the Black in AI group, which aims to increase the representation of blacks in the field.

The requests in the letter include the removal of a Google vice president, Megan Kacholia, from the team’s management chain; for the transparency surrounding Gebru’s departure; and that Google’s AI chief Jeff Dean and Kacholia apologize for the way Gebru was treated. He also calls on the company to offer Gebru a new, higher-level position, make a public commitment to the integrity of research conducted at Google and ensure that this will not harm workers who have advocated for Gebru.

In a message to Pichai and others linked to the letter, Alex Hanna, a senior researcher on the Ethical AI team, said it was sent on behalf of his team. A source close to the team said it has around a dozen members.

First reported by Bloomberg, CNN Business also obtained a copy of the letter and confirmed its authenticity. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Wednesday December 2, Gebru tweeted that she was “immediately fired” for an email she recently sent to Google’s internal Brain Women and Allies mailing list. In the email, she expressed dismay at the continued lack of diversity within the company and her frustration with an internal process related to reviewing an unpublished research paper that she has co-authored.
In subsequent tweets, Gebru clarified that no one at Google had explicitly told her that she had been fired. Instead, she said that Google would not meet a number of her return conditions and accepted her resignation immediately because she felt her email reflected “behavior inconsistent with the expectations of a Google official.”

Gebru’s sudden exit quickly angered thousands of company employees and other members of the tech and academic communities.

Google said Wednesday, December 9, that it would review Gebru’s departure. In a memo sent to Google (GOOG)employees, Pichai wrote that the company needed to “assess the circumstances” that led Gebru to quit Google last week and examine “where we could have improved and had a more respectful process.”

“We’re going to start a review of what happened to identify any areas we can learn about – taking into account everything from de-escalation strategies to new processes we can put in place,” he said. written in a memo confirmed by CNN Business. .

Gebru is known for her research on biases and inequalities in AI, and in particular for a 2018 article she co-authored that highlighted how commercial facial recognition software behaves badly when they tried to classify women and people of color. Their work has sparked widespread awareness of common issues in AI today, especially when technology is tasked with identifying everything about human beings.


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