Google Scientist’s Abrupt Exit Exposes Rift in Prominent AI Unit

Google’s decision to part ways with a prominent researcher laid bare divisions within the company’s artificial intelligence unit and subjected its leader, the lauded software engineer Jeff Dean, to widespread scorn.

Timnit Gebru, a renowned scientist and one of the few Black women in AI,said Wednesday she was fired over an email she authored expressing dismay with management and the way it handled a review of her research. Gebru had been co-head of the team examining the ethical ramifications of AI.

What followed was a torrent of criticism of Google’s AI division, much of it aimed at Dean. “The termination is an act of retaliation against Dr. Gebru, and it heralds danger for people working for ethical and just AI — especially Black people and People of Color — across Google,” a group of hundreds of academics and researchers, many of them Google employees, wrote in anopen letter. Among its demands: that Dean and his colleagues explain their decision-making around Gebru’s research.

The fallout threatens to tarnish the reputation of one of the industry’s leading research shops, a division ofAlphabet Inc.’s Google that not only aids development of lucrative products but also contributes significantly to the world’s understanding of AI. And in a company brimming with computer scientists, few have been as revered as Dean. He oversees a sprawling research empire and has publicly championed more diverse hiring in AI and computer science. His programming prowess became the subject of corporate lore and glowing press coverage, including onearticle that called him the “Chuck Norris of the internet.”

“Ousting Timnit for having the audacity to demand research integrity severely undermines Google’s credibility for supporting rigorous research on AI ethics,” said Joy Buolamwini, the founder of the Algorithmic Justice League who wrote a ground-breaking paper, with Gebru, on racism in facial recognition software. The widely cited 2018study showed facial recognition software misidentified dark-skinned women as much as 35% of the time — compared with near precision in White men.

Dean and Google representatives didn’t respond to requests for comment. In an email to colleagues Thursday that was seen by Bloomberg, Dean defended his handling of the matter. He wrote in part that Gebru hadn’t followed company policy in submitting the paper for peer review, that it ignored “too much relevant research,” and that Gebru and colleagues made unrealistic demands when they were informed “that it didn’t meet our bar for publication.”

Under Dean, Google has assembled a diverse group of AI ethics scientists with backgrounds in tech and social science, but some of those employees are now wondering if they are free to do their jobs. Inside Google’s research unit, several people openly questioned their future at the company, while others felt compelled to apologize to recently hired researchers, according to a person who asked not to be identified discussing internal matters.

“The egregiously aggressive retaliation from Jeff Dean and other senior leaders at Google is indicative of the lack of respect that they have both for Black women and academic freedom and integrity,” said Ifeoma Ozoma, a former Google policy associate.

The controversy came to a head Wednesday, when Gebru, the co-lead of Google’s Ethical Artificial Intelligence unit, posted on Twitter about her dismissal. She said that the company had demanded she retract a research paper she co-authored that criticized computer language models — including methods Google uses for its search engine and voice assistant.

In an email to colleagues earlier in the week that was also seen by Bloomberg, Gebru accused Dean’s division of not hiring enough women and silencing employees from marginalized groups. She told her colleagues to stop working “because it doesn’t make a difference.” In a subsequent message to Gebru, Google cited that email as a missive “inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager.”

In his Thursday email to staff, Dean said he had accepted Gebru’s resignation after declining to meet her demands about the unpublished research paper. He also mentioned her comments supporting a work stoppage. “Please don’t,” the executive pleaded.

Dean’s email didn’t go over well. On Twitter, Alex Hanna, a researcher on Google’s Ethical AI team, accused Dean of “spreading misinformation and misconstruals” in the email.

“I’m extremely disappointed in @JeffDean today,” Kelly Ellis, a former Google engineer who now works at MailChimp, wrote on Twitter. “Shame on you, @JeffDean. I naively expected more from you,” said Eddie Kay, another former Google engineer.

Dean joined Google in 1999 and climbed its ranks — he’s now one of select Senior Vice Presidents — largely on his software engineering ability. In 2018, he was named the head ofGoogle’s AI unit, widely considered the global leader in cutting-edge efforts like speech detection and image recognition.

Soon, though, that job entailed dealing with controversies. That year, Google staff rebelled against the company’s work on an AI project for the Pentagon. Researchers at the company also spoke out about how bias in AI unfairly targeted people of color in several instances, from Google’s Photo app to the algorithms used in bank loans and police work.

Since then, Google released a set of ethical guidelines for its AI, including barring facial recognition for surveillance. The tech giant set up advisory counsels, which itselfstruggled to function. It also hired a handful of experts like Gebru, who had worked atMicrosoft Corp., and paid them to research topics around AI and ethics.

Gebru was one of five Google staff listed on the research paper at the heart of her dismissal, along with two outside researchers. Emily M. Bender, a linguist from the University of Washington who co-authored the research, said she didn’t know about the issues Google had with the research. “[Gebru] is an incredibly respected leader in this field,” Bender said. “By pushing her out, Google is losing a major asset.”

In the past two years, several internal critics of Google’s approach to AI and ethics have left the company. On Thursday, staff on Dean’s unit referenced these departures as a sign of the low morale on the team. “The chilling effects of the decisions behind-the-scenes continue to haunt me,” Margaret Mitchell, co-head of the ethical AI team, wrote in an email viewed by Bloomberg News.

Dean took a more calibrated tone about the most recent exit. “I know we all genuinely share Timnit’s passion to make AI more equitable and inclusive,” he wrote in the email to his staff. “No doubt, wherever she goes after Google, she’ll do great work and I look forward to reading her papers and seeing what she accomplishes.”

— With assistance by Gerrit De Vynck

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