Renowned AI researcher says Google abruptly fired her, spurring industrywide criticism of the company

Tech

AI Research Scientist Timnit Gebru.

Kimberly White | Getty Images

Timnit Gebru, a well-known artificial intelligence researcher at Google, tweeted on Wednesday that the company abruptly fired her, and drew widespread statements of support from other Google employees and tech workers throughout the industry.

Gebru, who was the technical co-lead of the Ethical AI Team at Google and worked on algorithmic bias and data mining, is a well-known advocate for diversity in technology and is the co-founder of a community of black researchers called Black in AI. She has been a vocal critic of tech companies’ treatment of Black workers and had tweeted veiled criticism about her employer earlier in that day.

Gebru claims she received a dismissal email written by someone named Megan who reports to AI head Jeff Dean. She said the email stated leadership fast-tracked her departure because of an email she sent to women and “Allies” within Google Brain, Google’s deep learning artificial intelligence research team, earlier in the week.

Gebru said her main corporate account had been cut off while she was on vacation. “I hadn’t resigned — I had asked for simple conditions first and said I would respond when I’m back from vacation,” tweeted Gebru.

Neither Gebru nor Google responded to requests for comment.

The email Gebru sent to colleagues, according to a report by Casey Newton, stated that superiors suddenly asked her to retract a research paper, while presenting almost no information about what was wrong with it or chances to defend herself. In her email, she suggests this incident is part of a larger pattern at Google of paying lip-service to diversity without making actual changes, adding “There is no way more documents or more conversations will achieve anything.”

The email that she claims she received from Google, which CNBC has yet to confirm, apparently reads:

“Thanks for making your conditions clear. We cannot agree to #1 and #2 as you are requesting.” (Gebru has not publicly detailed what those conditions were.) We respect your decision to leave Google as a result, and we are accepting your resignation. However, we believe the end of your employment should happen faster than your email reflects because certain aspects of the email you sent last night to non-management employees in the brain group reflect behavior that is inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager.”

“As a result, we are accepting your resignation immediately, effective today. We will send your final paycheck to your address in Workday. When you return from your vacation, PeopleOps will reach out to you to coordinate the return of Google devices and assets.”

Born and raised in Ethiopia, Gebru studied electrical engineering at Stanford before joining Apple, where she worked on the first iPad, and subsequently Microsoft. Gebru is well known for her work on the race and gender bias of facial recognition systems. In 2018, Gebru and MIT computer scientist Joy Buolamwini co-authored a milestone research paper showing IBM and Microsoft’s facial recognition systems were significantly worse when it came to identifying darker-skinned individuals. Google AI head Jeff Dean has praised her publicly on social media.

Several Google employees past and present — as well as tech workers industrywide — took to Twitter to express support for Gebru and point out irony of terminating an ethics leader in such fashion.

“I thought this was a joke because it seemed ridiculous that anyone would fire @timnitGebru given her expertise, her skills, her influence,” wrote former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao on Twitter. “This is one of the many times when I think there is just no hope for the tech industry.”

Kate Devlin, an AI researcher at King’s College London, said on Twitter: “This is awful. @timnitGebru is one of the best voices in AI Ethics. It’s a painful irony that what her employer, Google, is doing to her is shady as hell.”

Gebru tweeted that she is now looking for an employment lawyer.

The latest controversy comes on the heels of a complaint filed by the National Labor Relations Board Wednesday, which accuses Google of spying on employees, blocking employees from sharing work grievances and retaliation.

Watch Now: Google employees stage global walkout and ask for accountability

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