Saturday, December 9, 2023

Google ethics researcher departure renews concerns company silencing whistleblowers

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A prominent AI researcher is gone Google, saying she was fired for criticizing the company’s lack of commitment to diversity, reiterating her concerns over the company’s attempts to silence criticism and debate.

Timnit Gebru, who was the technical co-lead of a Google team focused on AI ethics and algorithmic biases, written on twitter that she was kicked out of the company for writing an email to the “women and allies” of Google Brain, the company’s basic AI research division, which angered executives superiors.

Gebru is well known to AI researchers for its help in promoting diversity and inclusion in the field. She co-founded the Conference on Fairness, Accountability and Transparency (FAccT), which is dedicated to AI bias issues, safety and ethics. She also co-founded the Black in AI group, which showcases the work of black machine learning experts and offers mentoring. The group has sought to raise awareness of prejudice and discrimination against black computer scientists and engineers.

Colleagues in AI researchers have Twitter to express his support for Gebru and his outrage at his apparent dismissal. “Google’s retaliation against Timnit, one of the brightest and most convinced AI justice researchers in the field, is * alarming *,” said Meredith Whittaker, director of the faculty of AI Now Institute at New York University, wrote on Twitter.

“Speaking out against censorship is now“ incompatible with the expectations of a Google official. ”She did so because she cares more and will risk everything to protect those she hired to work with her – a team that happens to be more diverse than any other at Google, ”Deb Raji, another researcher specializing in fairness, ethics and accountability and who works at Mozilla, wrote in a Twitter post.

Many noted that Gebru’s departure came on the same day, the National Labor Relations Board accused Google of illegally laying off workers who helped organize two company-wide protests: one in 2019 against the company’s work with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency and a strike in 2018 to protest against the the company’s handling of cases of sexual harassment.

The NLRB accused Google of using “layoffs and intimidation to crack down on activism in the workplace.” He also said two employees who were fired after taking steps to educate other employees about Google’s anti-union tactics were unlawfully fired.

Google has not posted a public comment on the NLRB case and has not responded to requests for comment on the Gebru case. Gebru did not respond to email requests for comment.

Gebru’s abrupt departure, however, is likely to renew concerns both inside and outside the company about the ethics of its technology and how it handles employee dissent. Once known for its free and liberal corporate culture, Google has increasingly sought to limit employee talk, especially when it addresses issues that could embarrass the business or have a potential impact on its business. ability to secure lucrative work for various government agencies.

In a tweet, Gebru said she was fired by Jeff Dean, the senior vice president who heads up Google’s artificial intelligence division, because he disapproved of what she said in the message in the email. internal.

Gebru then wrote in a subsequent tweet that she had negotiated with the managers, asking them to meet several conditions in exchange for her agreeing to remove her name from a research paper. If those conditions weren’t met, she said she was ready to leave the company and would negotiate a departure date when she returned from a scheduled vacation.

His manager responded, Gebru tweeted, telling him the company could not agree to his terms and was accepting his resignation instead, effective immediately.

“We believe that the end of your job should come sooner than your email reflects, as some aspects of the email you sent last night to non-management employees at the think tank reflect inconsistent behavior. with the expectations of a Google manager, “said the email said, according to Gebru’s account on Twitter.

On Thursday, the Platformer online newsletter got and published what he was saying was the email Gebru had sent to his colleagues. She criticizes the company’s commitment to diversity, saying that “this organization seems to have only hired about 14% of women this year”. (She does not say whether this figure is for all of Google Research or some other entity.) She accuses Google of trying to prevent her from publishing a research article in which this figure is mentioned. She also accuses the company of not caring about diversity and inclusion efforts and advises those who want the company to change to look for ways to exert external pressure on Google.

Gebru says in the email that his manager told him to withdraw the research paper. She says when she asked for more information on the reasons, she was told to meet with Human Resources, who read her confidential and anonymous comments on it. She says that when she tried to respond to those comments, her manager again told her to remove the document.

Gebru has hinted in several tweets that she has raised ethical concerns about some of the company’s AI software, including its large language models. This type of AI software is responsible for many breakthroughs in natural language processing, including improved translation and Google search results, but have been shown to incorporate the gender and racial biases of the large amounts of internet pages and books used to train them.

In yesterday’s tweets, she named Dean, a historical figure among many computer engineers and researchers as one of the original coders for Google’s search engine, and hinted that she had planned to review bias in Google’s major language models. “@JeffDean I realize how much great language models are for you now. I wouldn’t want to see what happens to the next person who tries this, ”she wrote.

Earlier in the week, Gebru also hinted that Google officials were trying to censor his work or bury his concerns about ethical issues in the company’s AI systems. “Is there anyone working on regulations protecting ethical AI researchers, like whistleblower protection? Because with the amount of censorship and intimidation that is rampant against people belonging to specific groups, how can anyone believe that real research in this area can take place? She wrote in a Twitter message on December 1.

More to read absolutely technological coverage of Fortune:


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