(CNN Business)Tension between Google’s Ethical AI group and executives at the company rose on Wednesday, as employees sent a list of demands regarding the recent departure of one of the team’s leaders — a prominent Black woman in a field that’s largely White and male.
The letter, sent to CEO Sundar Pichai, is titled “The future of Ethical AI at Google.” It lays out the moves the researchers want the company to make in order to “rebuild trust” with the team and create an environment in which they can continue their work. The team researches the ethical repercussions of artificial intelligence and advises the company on AI policies and products.
It comes in the wake of the sudden exit of Timnit Gebru, who until early December was the co-leader of Google’s Ethical AI team. She was also one of few Black employees at the company overall (3.7% of Google employees are Black, according to the company’s 2020 annual diversity report) — let alone in its AI division. The research scientist is also co-founder of the group Black in AI, which aims to increase representation of Black people in the field.
The demands in the letter include the removal of a Google vice president, Megan Kacholia, from the team’s management chain; for transparency surrounding Gebru’s departure; and for Google’s head of AI, Jeff Dean, and Kacholia to apologize for how Gebru was treated. It also calls for the company to offer Gebru a new, higher-level position, to commit publicly to the integrity of research conducted at Google, and to guarantee it won’t harm any workers who advocated for Gebru.
In a message sent to Pichai and others that linked to the letter, Alex Hanna, a senior research scientist on the Ethical AI team, said it was sent on behalf of her team. A source familiar with the team said it includes roughly a dozen members.
First reported by Bloomberg, CNN Business also obtained a copy of the letter and confirmed its authenticity. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
On Wednesday, December 2, Gebru tweeted that she had been “immediately fired” for an email she recently sent to Google’s Brain Women and Allies internal mailing list. In the email she expressed dismay over the ongoing lack of diversity at the company and frustration over an internal process related to the review of a not-yet published research paper she coauthored.
In later tweets, Gebru clarified that no one at Google explicitly told her that she was fired. Rather, she said Google would not meet a number of her conditions for returning and accepted her resignation immediately because it felt that her email reflected “behavior that is inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager.”
Gebru’s sudden exit quickly angered thousands of the company’s employees and others in the tech and academic communities.
Google said on Wednesday, Dec. 9 that it would examine Gebru’s departure. In a memo sent to Google (GOOG)employees, Pichai wrote the company needs to “assess the circumstances” that led up to Gebru leaving Google last week, and examine “where we could have improved and led a more respectful process.”
“We will begin a review of what happened to identify all the points where we can learn — considering everything from de-escalation strategies to new processes we can put in place,” he wrote in a memo that has been confirmed as authentic by CNN Business.
Gebru is known for her research into bias and inequality in AI, and in particular for a 2018 paper she coauthored that highlighted how poorly commercial facial-recognition software fared when attempting to classify women and people of color. Their work sparked widespread awareness of issues common in AI today, particularly when the technology is tasked with identifying anything about human beings.
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