Story at a glance
- Timnit Gebru said she was fired as co-lead of the Ethical Artificial Intelligence Team at Google after an email criticizing the company for its treatment of minorities.
- The company denied her account and said Gebru resigned.
- Hundreds of employees and industry insiders are rallying in support of Gebru.
Google is facing public outcry from hundreds of employees after allegedly firing an artificial intelligence (AI) researcher known for her work showing racial bias in facial recognition technology.
Timnit Gebru, former co-lead of the Ethical Artificial Intelligence Team, said she was fired on Wednesday over an email questioning the alleged censorship of a research paper on the environmental and ethical implications of large-scale AI language models. On Twitter, Gebru added that a "toxic" leadership in Human Resources also played a role in her firing and that, "they have had it in for me since day 1."
In an email to staff obtained by Reuters, Jeff Dean, head of Google’s AI unit, contradicted Gebru's story, saying that she resigned after Dean refused to reveal which colleagues decided her draft paper was unpublishable.
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“We accept and respect her decision to resign from Google,” Dean wrote in the email, according to Reuters, adding, “we all genuinely share Timnit’s passion to make AI more equitable and inclusive.”
Her departure is the latest in a series of resignations and firings at Google over diversity and other ethical concerns. Earlier this week, the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint against the tech giant, saying it violated federal law by spying on and firing two employees for organizing.
Online, several current and former employees expressed their solidarity.
It’s one of the most aggressive displays of retaliation I’ve ever seen. And they really thought it would go unchecked. They’re intent on saying all of the quiet parts out loud.— Ifeoma Ozoma (@IfeomaOzoma) December 4, 2020
@timnitGebru’s experience hits home for me because Black people in tech are often used, abused, and discarded. Usually it’s not as public and the offenders are not named. Some quit when they’ve had enough. Others because they see no credible change. #SiliconValley https://t.co/E8sIzTKIJs— Dantley Davis (@dantley) December 4, 2020
An open letter signed by more than 700 Google employees and more than 1,000 others demanded answers and transparency from Dean and Google leadership.
"Research integrity can no longer be taken for granted in Google’s corporate research environment, and Dr. Gebru’s firing has overthrown a working understanding of what kind of research Google will permit," said the letter. "This is also a moment of reckoning beyond Google."
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