Google is facing major backlash after firing Dr. Timnit Gebru, one of the world’s leading AI ethics researchers.
Google has already been accused by the National Labor Relations Board of spying on and terminating employees unlawfully. The accusation stems from the company’s efforts to discourage unionization.
Now the company has fired Timnit Gebru, a leading, well-respected researcher specializing in AI ethics. Gebru announced her firing via Twitter:
I was fired by @JeffDean for my email to Brain women and Allies. My corp account has been cutoff. So I've been immediately fired 🙂
— Timnit Gebru (@timnitGebru) December 3, 2020
As Gebru points out, and as Google has stated, the company says it fired her for sending an email to employees in the Bain group, an email that was “inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager.”
At the heart of the issue was a research paper Gebru was working on, a paper that received pushback. Gebru provided conditions that she asked Google to meet—in regard to the paper she was working on—otherwise she planned to resign. Rather than negotiate, the company simply accepted her resignation immediately, effectively firing her.
At the same time, Jeff Dean, the head of Google research, sent out a lengthy email to Google employees explaining why the company chose to fire Gebru. The company blamed its actions on Gebru’s email to the Bain group, in which she detailed the struggles she had experienced as a Black women at the company. Gebru’s email to the Bain group, as well as Dean’s response can be read here.
It appears Google’s employees aren’t buying the company’s line, not surprising given how well respected Gebru is. To date, over 1,000 people have signed a petition in support of her. In addition, Dr. Alex Hanna, also a Google AI ethics researcher, called out the company for its “chilling” actions against Gebru:
The amount of disrespect and straight-up gaslighting that @timnitGebru is at the receiving end from our employer right now is chilling.
Google could be one of the research leaders on the social implications of AI and tech. But they're choosing to go the other way.
— Dr. Alex Hanna (@alexhanna) December 3, 2020
It goes without saying that Google is providing a case study in how not to handle this kind of situation. Given the scrutiny the company is under, this is certainly not going to help their case.