yesAnna KramerNone
×

Get access to Protocol

I’ve already subscribed

Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

People

'There's a chilling effect': Google's firing of leading AI ethicist spurs industry outrage

Timnit Gebru's firing could damage Google's reputation and ethical AI research within tech companies, industry leaders told Protocol.

'There's a chilling effect': Google's firing of leading AI ethicist spurs industry outrage

Timnit Gebru said that she was forced out of Google because of an email she sent to members of the Google Brain Women and Allies listserv.

Photo: Kimberly White/Getty Images

After Google fired one of the industry's most respected and well-loved AI ethics researchers on Wednesday, Google employees and tech industry leaders alike voiced their fear that her firing will have a "chilling effect" on ethics research within tech companies and at Google specifically.

Timnit Gebru, the now-former technical co-lead for Google's AI ethics team, said that she was forced out of Google because of an email she sent to members of the Google Brain Women and Allies Listserv that detailed her frustration with the company's diversity pledges and the exhausting experience of being a Black woman at Google, as well as conflict over an ethics research paper that Google wanted retracted. Over the last week, Gebru had been fighting to have the research paper — which discusses the ethics issues of large language models — published with her and other Google employees' names.

After Gebru said that she would plan to resign if Google didn't commit to further discussion about the company's demands over the research paper, Google immediately rejected her conditions and terminated her employment without discussion, according to Gebru's statement. In the email explaining her termination shared by Gebru, Google Research Vice President Megan Kacholia wrote that Gebru's email to the Listserv was "inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager." Google declined to comment.

Gebru is best known for her research on discrimination within facial recognition models, including a groundbreaking study that illustrated gender and skin-type bias in the best commercial AI facial recognition systems at the time. "She's literally the best of the best. She's the best that we've got. Not only does Timnit encapsulate our hopes and dreams, and is the embodiment of the best of us, but she is strongly supported," said Mutale Nkonde, the CEO of AI for the People and a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Klein Center.

Gebru is also well-liked for supporting activism within Google and defending employees who've lost their jobs because of their protests. Shortly before she tweeted that she had been fired, the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint that said Google had violated labor laws by spying on and then firing workers who were organizing employee protests. "If we have heroes in the AI ethics community, she's one of those heroes," said Susan Etlinger, an AI expert at the Altimeter Group. "She's someone who has, at great cost to herself, persisted in identifying, publicizing and trying to remediate a lot of the issues that arise with the use of intelligent technologies."

A number of people on her own team and others within Google tweeted their support for Gebru and anger with their employer. That includes Alex Hanna, a senior research scientist on the ethical AI team, who said that "to call her unbecoming of a manager is the height of disrespect." Dylan Baker, another Ethical AI team member, called her "the best manager I've had."

Gebru's departure could be damaging for Google's reputation in the ethical AI community and among tech workers broadly. The support for Gebru in the industry is nearly unanimous, and every leader who spoke to Protocol for this story echoed the same two sentiments: She is among the best at her technical work and Google's decision to fire her shocks and angers them. "The idea that this is going to be able to happen, and it's going to go away and it's not going to have an impact on tech … Google really needs to really look at itself in a mirror," Nkonde said.

All of the industry leaders who spoke with Protocol voiced their fear that her firing would have a chilling effect on other ethical researchers in the industry and at Google specifically. Academics and activists have long expressed skepticism about the integrity of ethical AI research at places like Google, but Gebru's reputation and leadership role lent credibility to Google's research and helped quell the critics. Earlier this year, Google even announced plans to launch an ethical AI consultancy that would provide tips for difficult problems learned from Google's own research and experience.

In firing her, Google not only gave up the voice that earned the ethical AI team respect in the first place, but also made it clear that there were consequences for speaking up, said Ansgar Koene, the global AI ethics and regulatory leader at EY and senior research fellow at the University of Nottingham. "Their division does great work, except a lot of the times they have their hands tied behind their backs because of such repressive policies," said Abhishek Gupta, a machine-learning engineer at Microsoft and founder of the Montreal AI Ethics Institute.

Gebru's firing was not entirely unexpected for people who knew her, including Gupta. Just the day before, while Gebru battled to get approval for the ethics research paper, Gupta and Gebru discussed how to create a legal system of protection for ethics whistleblowers inside tech companies. A few days before that, Gebru tweeted publicly that she wished there were a system of whistleblower protections.

"In a sense, this has been a long time in the making. This has, in bits and pieces, happened in the past, where she's tried to bring up relevant issues, and Google has sort of tried to suppress what she's saying," Gupta said, adding: "It's an unfortunate combination of what has been going on for months, I think."

Moving forward, people in her position need significant legal support to be able to express their concerns without fear of losing their jobs, said David Ryan Polgar, the founder and executive director of All Tech is Human. "There's a chilling effect for the people who don't have any type of national stature … You should have the ability to be a roadblock to what you would deem inappropriate activity."

And beyond the research work itself, firing Gebru makes Black women like her less likely to pursue the same career path, AI for the People's Nkonde said. "As Black women in tech, we all face similar issues, and not everybody is going to take the stand to stay within [the] industry," she said. For research scientists currently in school, choosing to work in the industry is far more intimidating after watching Gebru's experience play out, a feeling expressed by a number of those students on Twitter today.

If Gebru had decided to leave Google and announced that she would be going elsewhere, the reaction would have been celebratory, Nkonde explained. Instead, Google's decision to not only fire her but directly email the team she had managed about her departure creates a sense of fear and anger, showing that the tech sector, and Google specifically, "can be a hostile place for Black women," Nkonde said.

Ellen Pao, co-founder and CEO of Project Include and former CEO at Reddit, said that by firing Gebru, Google created an unfixable PR problem that illustrates a more systemic discrimination problem. "When I see Google in the context of its past, it has a terrible record of dealing with bias and discrimination, and it has a record of not hiring people from marginalized, underrepresented groups, not promoting them," she told Protocol.

"I think what it says is actually more important than what it says about Google. What this says is that the work of trying to remediate bias and create fairer technical systems is incredibly hard, and it's not just hard from a computational perspective. It's not just hard from a technical perspective. It's hard because it requires diversity of perspective, it requires diversity across many axes," Altimeter Group's Etlinger said.

Issie Lapowsky contributed additional reporting.

Big Tech benefits from Biden’s sweeping immigration actions

Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai praised President Biden's immigration actions, which read like a tech industry wishlist.

Newly-inaugurated President Joe Biden signed two immigration-related executive orders on Wednesday.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Immediately after being sworn in as president Wednesday, Joe Biden signed two pro-immigration executive orders and delivered an immigration bill to Congress that reads like a tech industry wishlist. The move drew enthusiastic praise from tech leaders, including Apple CEO Tim Cook and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai.

President Biden nullified several of former-President Trump's most hawkish immigration policies. His executive orders reversed the so-called "Muslim ban" and instructed the attorney general and the secretary of Homeland Security to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which the Trump administration had sought to end. He also sent an expansive immigration reform bill to Congress that would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented individuals and make it easier for foreign U.S. graduates with STEM degrees to stay in the United States, among other provisions.

Keep Reading Show less
Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

The current state-of-the-art quantum computers are a tangle of wires. And that can't be the case in the future.

Photo: IBM Research

The iconic image of quantum computing is the "Google chandelier," with its hundreds of intricately arranged copper wires descending like the tendrils of a metallic jellyfish. It's a grand and impressive device, but in that tangle of wires lurks a big problem.

"If you're thinking about the long-term prospects of quantum computing, that image should be just terrifying," Jim Clarke, the director of quantum hardware at Intel, told Protocol.

Keep Reading Show less
Dan Garisto
Dan Garisto is a freelance science journalist who specializes in the physical sciences, with an emphasis on particle physics. He has an undergraduate degree in physics and is based in New York.
Election 2020

Google says it’s fighting election lies, but its ads fund them

A new report finds that more than 1,600 brands, from Disney to Procter & Gamble, have advertisements running on sites that push pro-Trump conspiracy theories. The majority of those ads are served by Google.

Google is the most dominant player in programmatic advertising, but it has a spotty record enforcing rules for publishers.

Photo: Alex Tai/Getty Images

Shortly after November's presidential election, a story appeared on the website of far-right personality Charlie Kirk, claiming that 10,000 dead people had returned mail-in ballots in Michigan. But after publishing, a correction appeared at the top of the story, completely debunking the misleading headline, which remains, months later, unchanged.

"We are not aware of a single confirmed case showing that a ballot was actually cast on behalf of a deceased individual," the correction, which quoted Michigan election officials, read.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky
Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing. Email Issie.
People

Google’s productivity guru has some advice for you

Here's how Laura Mae Martin helps Google's top execs work smarter.

Laura Mae Martin, Google's executive productivity adviser, works one-on-one with the company's top brass.

Image: Google

If productivity were a product at Google, then Laura Mae Martin would be its product manager.

She's Google's executive productivity adviser, a job she created following a successful 20% project about managing inboxes that she debuted while working in keyword sales. As the company's top expert on productivity, her remit seems simple enough: Make Googlers more efficient in their day-to-day work lives. But in practice, that means working directly with the top executives of a trillion-dollar company to make some of tech's most sought-after talent better at what they do.

Keep Reading Show less
Kevin McAllister

Kevin McAllister ( @k__mcallister) is an associate editor at Protocol, leading the development of Braintrust. Prior to joining the team, he was a rankings data reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where he oversaw structured data projects for the Journal's strategy team.

People

Nine tricks from Google’s productivity guru

These productivity tips were voted as some of the best by Google employees. Now they're yours.

Google Workspace, G Suite's successor, has plenty of integrations to take advantage of.

Image: Google

Each Friday, Google's top productivity expert, Laura Mae Martin, sends a note to more than half the company globally describing ways that different departments are using their own tools to be more efficient. Here's a list of the favorites, as upvoted by Googlers themselves.

Read more about how Martin coaches Google's top execs to work smarter.

Keep Reading Show less
Kevin McAllister

Kevin McAllister ( @k__mcallister) is an associate editor at Protocol, leading the development of Braintrust. Prior to joining the team, he was a rankings data reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where he oversaw structured data projects for the Journal's strategy team.

Latest Stories