The fallout over Google’s handling of its AI ethics research team continues as the ACM Conference for Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency (FAccT) has suspended the company’s sponsorship.
Google made headlines when it fired the co-leads of its Ethical AI team, Dr. Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell. Gebru’s firing, which Google called a “resignation,” was the result of what was labeled as research censorship of a paper Gebru had co-authored. Mitchell was allegedly fired for trying to find examples of the mistreatment Gebru experienced.
The company has been widely criticized, by both employees and outsiders alike. Engineers have quit in protest, and Google’s handling of its AI ethics team was one of the issues specifically highlighted by employees when forming the Alphabet Workers Union. The company’s attempts to smooth the situation over have been seen as tone-deaf and generally falling far short of what’s necessary to repair the damage.
The ACM FAccT Conference has now suspended Google as a sponsor, with the news first appearing via a tweet by FAccT program committee member Suresh Venkatasubramanian.
The initial post was premature – before the sponsorship list was finalized. As for the final list, we made the call that it was in the best interests of the community to pause the sponsorship relationship with Google while we revise our sponsorship policy for next year.
— Suresh Venkatasubramanian (also on sky and mount) (@geomblog) February 26, 2021
In an email to VentureBeat, Michael Ekstrand, conference sponsorship co-chair and Boise State University assistant professor, went into more detail:
FAccT is guided by a Strategic Plan, and the conference by-laws charge the Sponsorship Chairs, in collaboration with the Executive Committee, with developing a sponsorship portfolio that aligns with that plan. The Executive Committee made the decision that having Google as a sponsor for the 2021 conference would not be in the best interests of the community and impede the Strategic Plan. We will be revising the sponsorship policy for next year’s conference.
Google has only itself to blame for its loss of standing within the AI community. Unfortunately for the company, leadership seems to have little interest in doing what’s necessary to fix the situation, make amends to the individuals impacted and regain the respect it’s lost.