Google Scientists Abrupt Exit Exposes Rift in Prominent AI Unit
(Bloomberg) -- Google’s decision to part ways with a prominent researcher laid bare divisions within the company’s artificial intelligence unit and subjected its leader, the lauded software engineer Jeff Dean, to widespread scorn.Timnit Gebru, a renowned scientist and one of the few Black women in AI, said Wednesday she was fired over an email she authored expressing dismay with management and the way it handled a review of her research. Gebru had been co-head of the team examining the ethical ramifications of AI.What followed was a torrent of criticism of Google’s AI division, much of it aimed at Dean. “The termination is an act of retaliation against Dr. Gebru, and it heralds danger for people working for ethical and just AI — especially Black people and People of Color — across Google,” a group of hundreds of academics and researchers, many of them Google employees, wrote in an open letter. Among its demands: that Dean and his colleagues explain their decision-making around Gebru’s research.The fallout threatens to tarnish the reputation of one of the industry’s leading research shops, a division of Alphabet Inc.’s Google that not only aids development of lucrative products but also contributes significantly to the world’s understanding of AI. And in a company brimming with computer scientists, few have been as revered as Dean. He oversees a sprawling research empire and has publicly championed more diverse hiring in AI and computer science. His programming prowess became the subject of corporate lore and glowing press coverage, including one article that called him the “Chuck Norris of the internet.”“Ousting Timnit for having the audacity to demand research integrity severely undermines Google’s credibility for supporting rigorous research on AI ethics,” said Joy Buolamwini, the founder of the Algorithmic Justice League who wrote a ground-breaking paper, with Gebru, on racism in facial recognition software. The widely cited 2018 study showed facial recognition software misidentified dark-skinned women as much as 35% of the time -- compared with near precision in White men.Dean and Google representatives didn’t respond to requests for comment. In an email to colleagues Thursday that was seen by Bloomberg, Dean defended his handling of the matter. He wrote in part that Gebru hadn’t followed company policy in submitting the paper for peer review, that it ignored “too much relevant research,” and that Gebru and colleagues made unrealistic demands when they were informed “that it didn’t meet our bar for publication.”Under Dean, Google has assembled a diverse group of AI ethics scientists with backgrounds in tech and social science, but some of those employees are now wondering if they are free to do their jobs. Inside Google’s research unit, several people openly questioned their future at the company, while others felt compelled to apologize to recently hired researchers, according to a person who asked not to be identified discussing internal matters.“The egregiously aggressive retaliation from Jeff Dean and other senior leaders at Google is indicative of the lack of respect that they have both for Black women and academic freedom and integrity,” said Ifeoma Ozoma, a former Google policy associate.The controversy came to a head Wednesday, when Gebru, the co-lead of Google’s Ethical Artificial Intelligence unit, posted on Twitter about her dismissal. She said that the company had demanded she retract a research paper she co-authored that criticized computer language models -- including methods Google uses for its search engine and voice assistant.In an email to colleagues earlier in the week that was also seen by Bloomberg, Gebru accused Dean’s division of not hiring enough women and silencing employees from marginalized groups. She told her colleagues to stop working “because it doesn’t make a difference.” In a subsequent message to Gebru, Google cited that email as a missive “inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager.”In his Thursday email to staff, Dean said he had accepted Gebru’s resignation after declining to meet her demands about the unpublished research paper. He also mentioned her comments supporting a work stoppage. “Please don’t,” the executive pleaded.Dean’s email didn’t go over well. On Twitter, Alex Hanna, a researcher on Google’s Ethical AI team, accused Dean of “spreading misinformation and misconstruals” in the email.“I’m extremely disappointed in @JeffDean today,” Kelly Ellis, a former Google engineer who now works at MailChimp, wrote on Twitter. “Shame on you, @JeffDean. I naively expected more from you,” said Eddie Kay, another former Google engineer.Dean joined Google in 1999 and climbed its ranks -- he’s now one of select Senior Vice Presidents -- largely on his software engineering ability. In 2018, he was named the head of Google’s AI unit, widely considered the global leader in cutting-edge efforts like speech detection and image recognition.Soon, though, that job entailed dealing with controversies. That year, Google staff rebelled against the company’s work on an AI project for the Pentagon. Researchers at the company also spoke out about how bias in AI unfairly targeted people of color in several instances, from Google’s Photo app to the algorithms used in bank loans and police work.Since then, Google released a set of ethical guidelines for its AI, including barring facial recognition for surveillance. The tech giant set up advisory counsels, which itself struggled to function. It also hired a handful of experts like Gebru, who had worked at Microsoft Corp., and paid them to research topics around AI and ethics.Gebru was one of five Google staff listed on the research paper at the heart of her dismissal, along with two outside researchers. Emily M. Bender, a linguist from the University of Washington who co-authored the research, said she didn’t know about the issues Google had with the research. “[Gebru] is an incredibly respected leader in this field,” Bender said. “By pushing her out, Google is losing a major asset.”In the past two years, several internal critics of Google’s approach to AI and ethics have left the company. On Thursday, staff on Dean’s unit referenced these departures as a sign of the low morale on the team. “The chilling effects of the decisions behind-the-scenes continue to haunt me,” Margaret Mitchell, co-head of the ethical AI team, wrote in an email viewed by Bloomberg News.Dean took a more calibrated tone about the most recent exit. “I know we all genuinely share Timnit’s passion to make AI more equitable and inclusive,” he wrote in the email to his staff. “No doubt, wherever she goes after Google, she’ll do great work and I look forward to reading her papers and seeing what she accomplishes.”For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.comSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.
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(Bloomberg) -- Timnit Gebru, a co-leader of the Ethical Artificial Intelligence team at Google, said she was fired for sending an email that management deemed “inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager.”The contents of the email she sent to colleagues at Google Brain Women and Allies, an email group for company researchers, that she said led to her firing, are unknown. Gebru said late Wednesday in a series of Twitter posts that she couldn’t share the original email that she believed got her fired because she was locked out of her corporate account. She suggested the dispute arose from a disagreement over a research paper but didn’t disclose details.Gebru, an alumni of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, is one of the leading voices in the ethical use of artificial intelligence. She is well-known for her work on a landmark study in 2018 that showed how facial recognition software misidentified dark-skinned women as much as 35% of the time, whereas the technology worked with near precision on white men.She has also been an outspoken critic of the lack of diversity and unequal treatment of Black workers at tech companies, particularly at Alphabet Inc.’s Google, and said she believed her dismissal was meant to send a message to the rest of Google’s employees not to speak up.Representatives for Mountain View, California-based Google didn’t immediately reply to requests for comment Wednesday night. Representatives for the company in Paris and Brussels said they didn’t have an immediate comment Thursday morning.Under FireIn the tweets, Gebru suggested that she had made specific demands to Google and said she would resign if the company couldn’t meet them. Google said it could not agree to all of her terms and that her termination was effective immediately, according to her tweets.Gebru didn’t immediately respond to requests for more information Wednesday night.Google, along with other U.S. tech giants including Inc. and Facebook Inc. have been under fire from the government for claims of bias and discrimination and have been questioned about their practices at several committee hearings in Washington.A year ago, Google fired four employees for what it said were violations of its data-security policies in what was already an escalating tension between management and activist workers at a company once revered for its open corporate culture. Gebru took to Twitter at the time to support those who lost their jobs.For the web search giant, Gebru’s alleged termination comes as the company faces a complaint from the National Labor Relations Board, NLRB, for unlawful surveillance, interrogation or suspension of workers.Earlier this week Gebru inquired on Twitter whether anyone was working on regulation to protect ethical AI researchers, similar to whistle-blower protections. “With the amount of censorship and intimidation that goes on towards people in specific groups, how does anyone trust any real research in this area can take place?” she wrote on Twitter.Rare VoiceGebru was a rare voice of public criticism from inside the company. In August, Gebru told Bloomberg News that Black Google employees who speak out are criticized even as the company holds them up as examples of its commitment to diversity. She recounted how co-workers and managers tried to police her tone, make excuses for harassing or racist behavior, or ignore her concerns.When Google was considering having Gebru manage another employee, she said in an August interview, her outspokenness on diversity issues was held against her, and concerns were raised about whether she could manage others if she was so unhappy. “People don’t know the extent of the issues that exist because you can’t talk about them, and the moment you do, you’re the problem,” she said at the time.For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.comSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.
Bloomberg · 19h ago
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About GOOG
Alphabet Inc. is a holding company. The Company's businesses include Google Inc. (Google) and its Internet products, such as Access, Calico, CapitalG, GV, Nest, Verily, Waymo and X. The Company's segments include Google and Other Bets. The Google segment includes its Internet products, such as Search, Ads, Commerce, Maps, YouTube, Google Cloud, Android, Chrome and Google Play, as well as its hardware initiatives. The Google segment is engaged in advertising, sales of digital content, applications and cloud offerings, and sales of hardware products. The Other Bets segment is engaged in the sales of Internet and television services through Google Fiber, sales of Nest products and services, and licensing and research and development (R&D) services through Verily. It offers Google Assistant, which allows users to type or talk with Google; Google Maps, which helps users navigate to a store, and Google Photos, which helps users store and organize all of their photos.