Still mired in controversy over its firing of Dr. Timnit Gebru, Google appears to be repeating history with Margaret Mitchell, its Ethics AI lead.
Google drew widespread condemnation from critics inside and outside the company for its firing of Dr. Gebru, one of the world’s leading AI ethics researchers. Gebru was forced out following the publication of a paper critical of some of the AI technology Google uses in its products. Google says Gebru resigned, but both Gebru and her team say she was fired after demands she retract the paper.
The incident prompted CEO Sundar Pichai to send an email to employees, apologizing for what happened and promising the company would do better in the future.
It would appear that promise may be short-lived, as Google is now taking action against Mitchell. Gebru tweeted the news on Tuesday.
She's not fired **yet**. But apparently they've told her she will be locked out for at least a few days. https://t.co/H1ibkgNQHM— Timnit Gebru (@timnitGebru) January 20, 2021
VentureBeat reached out to Google and received the following statement:
Our security systems automatically lock an employee’s corporate account when they detect that the account is at risk of compromise due to credential problems or when an automated rule involving the handling of sensitive data has been triggered. In this instance, yesterday our systems detected that an account had exfiltrated thousands of files and shared them with multiple external accounts. We explained this to the employee earlier today. We are actively investigating this matter as part of standard procedures to gather additional details.
Mitchell has been a vocal critic of Google’s handling of Gebru’s termination, tweeting the following just five hours before Gebru tweeted about the action taken against her:
Say you have a problem with consistently alienating Black women and have caused serious damage in their lives.— MMitchell (@mmitchell_ai) January 19, 2021
A) try to undo that damage
B) try to find more Black people to like you (the tokenism approach).
One big point of contention is the integrity of the research performed by Google’s scientists and researchers. In an email to Google’s leadership, the company’s AI researchers emphasized what’s at stake:
Google’s short-sighted decision to fire and retaliate against a core member of the Ethical AI team makes it clear that we need swift and structural changes if this work is to continue, and if the legitimacy of the field as a whole is to persevere.
This research must be able to contest the company’s short-term interests and immediate revenue agendas, as well as to investigate AI that is deployed by Google’s competitors with similar ethical motives.
Unfortunately, those concerns seem to have fallen on deaf ears. That letter was sent in mid-December. In late December, however, Google told researchers to “take great care to strike a positive tone” on “sensitive topics,” such as as AI, according to an email obtained by Reuters.
With Margaret Mitchell, the company’s Ethical AI lead, now potentially on the chopping block, Google is on the verge of losing all credibility among AI researchers.