Hundreds of Google employees and more than 1,000 academic researchers are speaking out in protest after a prominent Black scientist studying the ethics of artificial intelligence said she was fired by Google after the company attempted to suppress her research and she criticized its diversity efforts. Timnit Gebru, who was the technical co-lead of Google's Ethical AI team, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday that she had been fired after sending an email to an internal group for women and allies working in the company's AI unit. The email, which was first published by the tech newsletter Platformer, referenced a dispute over a research paper, but more broadly expressed frustration at Google's diversity programs. In it, Gebru argued that "there is zero accountability" or real incentive for Google leadership to change. "Your life gets worse when you start advocating for underrepresented people, you start making the other leaders upset," Gebru wrote.
In September, Timnit Gebru, then co-leader of the ethical AI team at Google, sent a private message on Twitter to Emily Bender, a computational linguistics professor at the University of Washington. "Hi Emily, I'm wondering if you've written something regarding ethical considerations of large language models or something you could recommend from others?" she asked, referring to a buzzy kind of artificial intelligence software trained on text from an enormous number of webpages. The question may sound unassuming but it touched on something central to the future of Google's foundational product: search. This kind of AI has become increasingly capable and popular in the last couple years, driven largely by language models from Google and research lab OpenAI. Such AI can generate text, mimicking everything from news articles and recipes to poetry, and it has quickly become key to Google Search, which the company said responds to trillions of queries each year. In late 2019, the company started relying on such AI to help answer one in 10 English-language queries from US users; nearly a year later, the company said it was handling nearly all English queries and is also being used to answer queries in dozens of other languages.
One of Google's top AI ethicists says she's out at the company -- in part, she says, because the tech giant was censoring her research. OneZero reports that Timnit Gebru, who had been the technical co-lead of Google's Ethical Artificial Intelligence Team, says her employment was abruptly cut off -- along with her access to her company email address -- after a tense email exchange. Gebru is known for influential research into racial bias in AI algorithms. Most recently, she's been working at Google in a research position, exploring ethical implications of AI technologies. But it now sounds like her experience at the search giant has been fraught.
Google has lost a couple of talents due to the way it treated and the departure of its former top AI ethics researcher, Dr. Timnit Gebru. According to Reuters, engineering director David Baker left the tech giant last month after 16 years with the company. In a letter seen by the news organization, Baker said Gebru's exit "extinguished [his] desire to continue as a Googler." He added: "We cannot say we believe in diversity, and then ignore the conspicuous absence of many voices from within our walls." Software engineer Vinesh Kannan, who built infrastructure and features for organic shopping on the website, has also left the company.
Former Google AI Research Scientist Timnit Gebru speaks here in September 2018. Gebru says she was abruptly fired from the tech giant after a dispute involving a research paper. Former Google AI Research Scientist Timnit Gebru speaks here in September 2018. Gebru says she was abruptly fired from the tech giant after a dispute involving a research paper. Hundreds of Google employees have published an open letter following the firing of a colleague who is an accomplished scientist known for her research into the ethics of artificial intelligence and her work showing racial bias in facial recognition technology.