Last month, Google artificial intelligence researcher Timnit Gebru received disturbing news from a senior manager. She says the manager asked her to either retract or remove her name from a research paper she had coauthored, because an internal review had found the contents objectionable. The paper discussed ethical issues raised by recent advances in AI technology that works with language, which Google has said is important to the future of its business. Gebru says she objected because the process was unscholarly. On Wednesday, she says she was fired.
One afternoon in late November of last year, Timnit Gebru was sitting on the couch in her San Francisco Bay Area home, crying. Gebru, a researcher at Google, had just clicked out of a last-minute video meeting with an executive named Megan Kacholia, who had issued a jarring command. Gebru was the coleader of a group at the company that studies the social and ethical ramifications of artificial intelligence, and Kacholia had ordered Gebru to retract her latest research paper--or else remove her name from its list of authors, along with those of several other members of her team. The paper in question was, in Gebru's mind, pretty unobjectionable. It surveyed the known pitfalls of so-called large language models, a type of AI software--most famously exemplified by a system called GPT-3--that was stoking excitement in the tech industry.
Timnit Gebru, one of Google's most prominent researchers on ethics and computer vision, says she was fired this week after sending an email to Google Brain Women and Allies, an internal resource group at the company. The email alludes to Google censoring one of Gebru's research papers without talking to her about it, as well as the poor treatment of those who advocate for underrepresented people at the company. The email was published in full on the outlet Platformer. After sending the email, Gebru had an exchange with managers and privately threatened to quit unless certain undisclosed conditions were met. Instead, Gebru says she was immediately fired, she told OneZero's Will Oremus.
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.
On Thursday morning, after an outpouring of support for Gebru on social media, Dean sent an internal email to Google's AI group with his account of the situation. He said that Gebru's paper "didn't meet our bar for publication" because "it ignored too much relevant research." He also said that Gebru's conditions included "revealing the identities of every person who Megan and I had spoken to and consulted as part of the review of the paper and the exact feedback." "Given Timnit's role as a respected researcher and a manager in our Ethical AI team, I feel badly that Timnit has gotten to a place where she feels this way about the work we're doing," he wrote. "I know we all genuinely share Timnit's passion to make AI more equitable and inclusive."