Ethiopian-American AI ethics researcher at Google says she was fired for a critical email

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Former Google AI research scientist Timnit Gebru speaks onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco in September 2018Image Credit: Kimberly White/Getty Images

By Drew Harwell and Nitasha Tiku

Washington Post – A prominent artificial-intelligence computer scientist who helped pioneer research into facial recognition software’s bias against people of color said she was abruptly fired from Google for sending an email criticizing the company’s treatment of minority employees and saying she felt “constantly dehumanized.”

Timnit Gebru said in a series of tweets Wednesday night that she was fired from her post as the co-leader of Google’s Ethical Artificial Intelligence Team, where she had spearheaded research that helped elevate the company’s status as a leader in assessing the technology’s fairness and risks.

Google officials did not respond to requests for comment. Gebru also did not respond to requests, but in an interview Thursday with Bloomberg said Google’s actions represented “the most fundamental silencing.” Gebru said Wednesday that she had been fired by Jeff Dean, the head of Google’s AI division, for an email she had sent to Brain Women and Allies, a mailing list for researchers on the company’s AI team known as Google Brain.

Her dismissal threatens to reignite anger over Google’s treatment of its workforce, particularly its employees of color. The company, which long evangelized its open culture, has cracked down on employee dissent over the past two years, particularly against marginalized and minority workers. Google has previously fired employees who advocated for increased diversity or critiqued the company’s ethics.

Inioluwa Deborah Raji, an AI researcher on a fellowship with the Mozilla Foundation who has worked with her, said Gebru had helped lend Google an air of legitimacy and credibility as it worked to portray itself as committed to inclusion and ethical research.

Despite Google’s reputation as a leader in AI ethics within the tech industry, its efforts have been marred by controversy and internal criticism. It disbanded its AI Ethics Council, an external advisory board, weeks after launching in March 2019 when employees protested the inclusion of Heritage Foundation president Kay Coles James, who had no AI experience and had recently shared anti-immigrant and anti-transgender views.

Gebru occupied a rare role in a Silicon Valley culture long criticized for its racial homogeneity. As an Ethiopian American woman in a senior role at the tech giant, she became well known for work that critically examined the technology’s societal biases and repercussions.

She co-founded Black in AI, an advocacy group that has held workshops at major AI conferences and pushed for more Black roles in AI development and research. She has also regularly criticized tech companies, including Google, for failing to hire more workers of color and treating them differently once they’re on board.

Two days before announcing her firing, Gebru had solicited advice regarding whistleblower-like protections for AI-ethics researchers, tweeting, “With the amount of censorship & intimidation that goes on towards people in specific groups, how does anyone trust any real research in this area can take place?”

Tensions between Gebru and the company also stemmed from research by Gebru’s team that was critical of AI systems, known as large language models, said one machine-learning researcher who had reviewed the study and requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the unpublished work. The company may one day seek to capitalize on such systems in consumer-facing products that could generate convincing passages of text that are difficult to distinguish from human writing, the researcher said.

Google already uses language-processing AI systems to translate between languages, look for hate speech and understand people’s writing and speech online. But other firms have increasingly sought to push the technology forward with systems, like the AI lab OpenAI’s GPT-3 system, which has been used to generate seemingly human-created news reports, poems and computer code.

Gebru told Bloomberg that the company had asked for her to remove Google employees’ names from, or retract outright, the research paper on language models, which was to be submitted for an AI conference next year.

In an open letter Thursday evening, a growing collective of 236 Google employees and 350 supporters from academia, industry, and civil society issued a list of demands for Google Research leadership, including asking Dean to meet with the Ethical AI team to explain the decision to “censor” Gebru’s paper. The group also demanded broader transparency. “This has become a matter of public concern, and there needs to be public accountability to ensure any trust in Google Research going forward,” the letter reads.

One of the signatories was Joy Buolamwini, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, a group that raises awareness about the impact of AI. “Ousting Timnit for having the audacity to demand intellectual integrity severely undermines Google’s credibility for supporting rigorous research and on AI ethics and algorithmic auditing,” Buolamwini said in a statement to the Post. “She deserves more than Google knew how to give, and now she is an all-star free agent who will continue to transform the tech industry.”

In her email to the mailing list, first published by Casey Newton in his newsletter Platformer, Gebru described her treatment at Google as dehumanizing. “Have you ever heard of someone getting ‘feedback’ on a paper through a privileged and confidential document to HR? Does that sound like a standard procedure to you or does it just happen to people like me who are constantly dehumanized?”

Gebru recounted her most recent experience in the email as an example of why she had given up on advocating for diversity inside Google. “[S]top writing your documents because it doesn’t make a difference,” she wrote. “[Y]our life gets worse when you start advocating for underrepresented people, you start making the other leaders upset when they don’t want to give you good ratings during calibration.”

Brain Women and Allies is what’s known as an employee resource group, popular in the tech industry and elsewhere in corporate America, commonly organized by co-workers who share the same background and interest. In Silicon Valley, which is still largely dominated by White and Asian men, these voluntary groups have been a vital resource for advice, candor, and solidarity for marginalized employees, and one of the few internal arenas where workers may feel able to express the types of critiques Gebru shared in her email.

Gebru said her managers told her that the email had reflected “behavior that is inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager,” and that they were accepting her resignation — even though, she said, she had not directly offered one. Gebru said she is currently on vacation and that the company had immediately terminated her access to company email accounts.

Alex Hanna, a researcher on Gebru’s team, tweeted that Dean was “now emailing the whole of the research organization, spreading misinformation and misconstruals about the conditions” of Gebru’s firing. She added, “Google researchers: don’t buy it.”

In a companywide email Thursday, first published in Platformer, Dean urged employees to continue working on Google’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. “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 also feel badly that hundreds of you received an email just this week from Timnit telling you to stop work on critical DEI programs. Please don’t. I understand the frustration about the pace of progress, but we have important work ahead and we need to keep at it.”

Ifeoma Ozoma, a former public policy executive for Pinterest who quit the company in May after she faced retaliation for raising complaints about pay inequity and race bias against Black employees, pointed out that Google defended former employee Miles Taylor, the ex-Department of Homeland Security official who worked on the Trump administration’s family separation policy. “Google went out of its way to defend his human rights violations, but fired her over not retracting her name from a paper and then emailing allies about it,” Ozoma said.

Taylor also condemned the Trump administration in an anonymous opinion piece.

The company has sought to address criticism by releasing statements about its work to increase Black representation in its executive ranks. But Gebru’s dismissal, Raji said, threatens to undermine all of that, suggesting the company may be more committed to moneymaking commercial endeavors than harsher critiques of the technology’s real-world use.

“People would think, ‘Timnit’s there, so it’s evidence that there’s an openness I’d have to work with people there on these issues,’” Raji said. “Firing her in such a disrespectful way reveals that perhaps Google’s commitment to some of these issues was not as legitimate as previously believed.”

In May, less than a week after George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed while in police custody, Gebru publicly stood up to Dean. The Google executive had tweeted his support for law enforcement and the idea that police brutality was not universal. “You might think something is perfectly fine but you’re not the one dealing with this. This adds to the violence against us,” Gebru replied on Twitter, adding, “Most people would not even say anything to you.”

123 COMMENTS

  1. Ante racist bigot Domaras,
    First of all, asking Abiy to ask UN protect poor hardworking Ethiopians that are being killed by brainwashed savage demented trabalist thug like you, is not coming after or against Abiy!!
    Second of all, it is an insult to Abiy to be supported by bloodthirsty racist bigots like you!! You are such a two-tongued snake — stop talking on both sides of your mouth, you act as a supporter of Abiy, but you are against of everything Abiy stand for and trying to accomplish!!
    Thirdly, I’m proud to be a PATRIOT and a NEFTEGNA that can knock your neffte out of your afencha with one punch!!
    Bzzzzzz…. You are one of Lucifer’s scums of the earth that bring smile to your evil master everytime you committ or encourage others to committ heinous crimes against innocent humanbeings — Menace to society!!

    • Parrot,

      Shut up! I don’t like when low life Azemari is trying to respond to my comments. Respond to and H 5 your fellow low life Azemari Abebash. Ethiopianwent my a***.

      I have been firm in my support to the magnanimous PM Abiy. I don’t waver like you and your skunk buddy in my support to Abiy. What I don’t understand is that Azemaris always love to take credit for the success of others. This a very backward habit. Leba!

      Lemen Yewashal?

      • Domaras–The Bigot!!
        OMG! Such a juvenile, and brainwashed at that! You don’t even know what you are talking about!! Such kahat addicted thug!! Just nonsense jibber jabber racist bigot!! You’re one and the same with TPLF, Al-Quida, Al-Shabab, Boko Haram, ISIS, Nazis — all riddled with unimaginable alarming bigotry and hatred against humanity!!
        I’m telling you, Don’t say you support Abiy!! It is an insult for Abiy to be supported by an extremely hatefilled ruthless racist thug like you, that wants entire Amhara ethnic group ERADICATED!!

    • Hope,

      ይህንን ጉድ ሰምተህልኛል። የብሄር፣ብሄረሰቦች እና ህዝቦች ዋሻ ይህን መስሎ ነበር የተገነባው። ዋሻው ፈረሰ፣ገና ግን በርካታ መፍረስ የሚገባቸው ዋሻዎች አሉ። በዋሻ ውስጥ ተሰቃይተው የሞቱት ወገኖቻችንን ነፍስ ይማር ብቻ ነው ማለት የሚቻለው። የጀርመን ናዚ ያሰራቸው የማምለጫ እና የማሰቃያ ዋሻዎችን በዶኩመንታሪ ያየሁትን አሳየኝ እግዜር በአገሬ። ጉድ ነው። የጎሣ ፓለቲካ የአዝመራ ፍሬ መሆኑ ነው።

      Ethiopia ሰበር መረጃ: እነ ዶክተር ደብረ ጺዮን ያመለጡበት አስደንጋጭ በብረት ኮንክሪት የተሰራው ዋሻ ተገኘ ሙሉ የዋሻው ቪዲኦ ይመልከቱ
      **********************************************

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dO6vWESMRC4

      Aba Mela, how do you feel about this legacy? I can tell you many innocent people, especially Amhara perished in such underground structure.

  2. A must watch video the number of bombs and additional weapons the soldiers found, and listen to some of the crimes the soldiers describe… Hard to believe that our motherland Ethiopia, the very country millions of Ethiopians, including my great grandfather bled and died for was ruled by ruthless, homegrown terrorists that slashed a pregnant woman and ripped her infant baby apart…, they slashed another person stomach and pulled his colons out of his body, etc. I bet even Satan is shocked by Woyanes inhumanities:
    https://youtu.be/pi7vK25GEI0

  3. Without any shred of doubt there are more underground tunnel or caves in Wollega.ያለምንም ጥርጥር በመቀሌ ያየነው የወያኔ የማምለጫ እና ማሰቃያ ዋሻ በወለጋ ክፍለሀገር እንደሚገኝ። ከደምቢ ዶሎ ዩኒቨርስቲ የታፈኑት የአማራ ሴት ተማሪዎች በወለጋ በሚገኝ የኦነግ የመሬት ውስጥ ዋሻ ውስጥ ወይ በህይወት እየተሰቃዩ ይገኛሉ ወይም ሞተው በዚያው ተቀብረዋል። ይህን ትመስል ነበር ኢትዮጵያ ለአለፉት 30 ዓመታት። ታዲያ በዚህ ሥርዓት ኢትዮጵያ ልትቀጥል ይፈለጋል ? Never, that will happen on Ethiopians dead body.

    • Abebaw,
      I’m not surprised at all, I expected to see this, but it is still unreal to wittness it. In so many ways, this tunnel is admission of guilt of TPLF’s 30 bloody hellish years of robberies and massacres, and a testimony by itself that the Organized TPLF mafia criminals came to loot by every evil means known and unknown to man. If TPLF mafia didn’t have nothing to hide, there is no need of building a tunnel to escape!! I’ve no doubt that this is just the tip of the iceberg of endless jawdropping frightening evidence and news to come! This are the bloodyhand TPLF mafia criminals that Obama and Susan Rice supported and chose to ignore the suffering of Ethiopians throughout Ethiopia, and the genocide of Amharas! History won’t be kind to them!!

  4. Nazretoch,
    I am all in favour of moderation after all it is your site, however, I think it is equally important that commenters are notified if you have disallowed the inclusion of their comment.

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