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Google CEO says company will review disputed dismissal of top AI researcher

Google CEO says company will review disputed dismissal of top AI researcher
© Greg Nash

Google will review the process that led to the dismissal of a top artificial intelligence (AI) researcher who said she was fired after voicing concerns about the handling of a report on AI bias, though the company’s head of research said Google merely accepted the researcher’s resignation. 

CEO Sundar Pichai sent a memo to employees on Wednesday that addressed the departure of AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru, apologizing for the “doubts” it led to among the Google community and pledging to have an internal review of the process, according to a copy of the memo first reported by Axios

“I’ve heard the reaction to Dr. Gebru’s departure loud and clear: it seeded doubts and led some in our community to question their place at Google. I want to say how sorry I am for that, and I accept the responsibility of working to restore your trust,” Pichai reportedly wrote. 

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“We will begin a review of what happened to identify all the points where we can learn — considering everything from de-escalation strategies to new processes we can put in place,” he added. 

A Google spokesperson confirmed the memo is authentic, but said the company has "nothing further to share." 

Gebru, however, dismissed the efficacy of Pichai’s memo in addressing the root of the issues. 

“I see no plans for accountability and there was further gaslighting in the statement,” she tweeted after the memo was reported. 

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Gebru, a co-leader of Google’s Ethical AI team, last week said on Twitter that she was fired from Google after an email she sent to a group of company researchers called Brain Women and Allies. In the email she reportedly commented on a report others were working on about minority hiring, referencing her own experience with pushback on an AI ethics paper she submitted for a conference. 

Google requested Gebru retract an AI ethics paper she had co-written with six others, including four fellow employees, that was submitted for an industry conference next year, or at least remove the names of Google employees, she told Bloomberg News

The paper detailed ethical considerations of large language models that are used in AI research, including in products such as Google’s search engine, according to a blog post by a group protesting Gebru’s dismissal. 

Gebru said she asked for an explanation on the request to retract the paper and said that without more discussion on the paper and the way it was handled she would plan to resign after a transition period. 

In the email to the Brain Women and Allies group, Gebru wrote, “Stop writing your documents because it doesn’t make a difference,” according to Bloomberg. 

“There is no way more documents or more conversations will achieve anything,” she reportedly wrote. 

The next day she said she was fired by email. 

Google senior vice president and head of research Jeff Dean last week pushed back on Gebru’s claims that she was fired. He shared an email sent to the Google Research team that said the company accepted her decision to resign after her email detailed “a number of conditions” she had "in order for her to continue working at Google." 

“Timnit wrote that if we didn’t meet these demands, she would leave Google and work on an end date. We accept and respect her decision to resign from Google,” Dean wrote, according to the copy of the email he shared. 

Thousands of Google employees, however, rallied behind Gebru, as did academics, industry and civil society supporters who signed a petition in protest of her dismissal and calling on Google to be transparent about her departure. 

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Google Walkout for Real Change’s petition underscored its plea for transparency on Gebru’s dismissal by noting that she was “one of very few Black women” working as research scientists at the company. 

Google Walkout for Real Change on Monday wrote an additional blog post disputing Dean’s claims that Gebru resigned, backing the researcher’s account of the situation. 

The controversy over Gebru’s dismissal adds to concerns over Google’s treatment of its employees. 

The National Labor Relations Board earlier this month filed a complaint against the tech giant alleging it illegally spied on and then fired two employees for organizing. 

Google defended the firings, arguing the two workers had violated company policy.