Hundreds of Google employees and more than 1,000 academic researchers are speaking out in protest after a prominent Black scientist studying the ethics of artificial intelligence said she was fired by Google after the company attempted to suppress her research and she criticized its diversity efforts.
Timnit Gebru, who was the technical co-lead of Google’s Ethical AI team, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday that she had been fired after sending an email to an internal group for women and allies working in the company’s AI unit.
The email, which was first published by the tech newsletter Platformer, referenced a dispute over a research paper, but more broadly expressed frustration at Google’s diversity programs. In it, Gebru argued that “there is zero accountability” or real incentive for Google leadership to change. “Your life gets worse when you start advocating for underrepresented people, you start making the other leaders upset,” Gebru wrote. “There is no way more documents or more conversations will achieve anything.”
Gebru is one of the most well-known and respected Black female scientists working in AI. Before joining Google, she co-authored a widely cited 2018 paper that found higher error rates in facial analysis technology for women with darker skin tones. She also co-founded the non-profit Black in AI that aims to increase representation of people of color in the field.
The dispute over Gebru’s research arose in November, when a senior manager at Google told Gebru that she would have to either retract or remove her name from a paper she had co-authored, Gebru told Wired. The paper, co-authored by researchers inside and outside Google, contended that technology companies could do more to ensure AI systems aimed at mimicking human writing and speech do not exacerbate historical gender biases and use of offensive language, according to a draft copy seen by Reuters.