Google has been facing a lot of backlash from the last few days after it fired Timnit Gebru, an AI ethics researcher over an internal email she sent accusing the tech giant of silencing people’s voices.
The incident has attracted hundreds of Google staff who have signed a letter backing Timnit Gebru after she was sacked by the tech company days ago.
Timnit Gebru says she was fired after sending an internal email that accused Google of “silencing marginalised voices”. It was after sending the email that she found herself without a job a few days later.
Hundreds of her colleagues have signed a letter accusing the search giant of racism and censorship, while Twitter users have rallied around Dr Gebru using the hashtag #BelieveBlackWomen.
However, Google has disputed her story saying it’s not exactly as she suggested it to have happened. Her version of events isn’t accurate according to the tech giant.
Dr Gebru is a well-respected researcher in the field of ethics and the use of artificial intelligence. She is well-known for her work on racial bias in technology such as facial recognition and has criticised systems that fail to recognise black faces.
Her co-author on one of those well-known papers, Joy Buolamwini, said Dr Gebru “deserved more” from Google.
“Ousting Timnit for having the audacity to demand research integrity severely undermines Google’s credibility for supporting rigorous research on AI ethics and algorithmic auditing,” she said.
“We owe her a debt of gratitude for advancing not just the field of artificial intelligence, but for advancing equality with humility and grace.”
Why Google fired Timnit Gebru
BBC reports that before her firing, Dr Gebru was called into a meeting about a research paper she had co-written. She alleges that this happened while she was preparing to go on leave.
During the meeting, the ethics researcher was ordered by Google to retract the research paper she had co-written and that it was not prepared to engage in a discussion about the matter either.
Following the meeting, she sent an email to an internal group called “Brain Women and Allies”, criticising the decision. A copy of the email was published by Platformer.
“You are not worth having any conversations about this, since you are not someone whose humanity… is acknowledged or valued in this company,” she said in the email.
“Stop writing your documents because it doesn’t make a difference.”
Gebru took to Twitter to voice her concerns about the matter.
Apparently my manager’s manager sent an email my direct reports saying she accepted my resignation. I hadn’t resigned—I had asked for simple conditions first and said I would respond when I’m back from vacation. But I guess she decided for me 🙂 that’s the lawyer speak.
— Timnit Gebru (@timnitGebru) December 3, 2020
Dr Gebru had emailed her management laying out some key conditions for removing her name from the paper, and if they were not met, she would “work on a last date” for her employment.
According to Dr Gebru, Google replied: “We respect your decision to leave Google… 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 behaviour that is inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager.”
Dr Gebru denied she had resigned, tweeting that she had been fired by Jeff Dean, a senior manager at Google dealing with AI Research.
“I guess [management] decided for me”, she said.
The research paper remains unpublished, but MIT Technology Review has summarised its contents, saying it focused on the risks of training AI by drawing on huge archives of text data.
Timnit’s dismissal and the open letter of support have attracted nearly 2,000 signatories, both from within Google and the wider industry. Many are outraged by the actions undertaken the tech mogul and have referred to it as racial bias and “silencing marginalised voices”.
Many of her staff and others across the world took to Twitter to voice out their concerns and show support for Gebru after she was dismissed from Google.
“I cannot count the number of times Timnit Gebru has encouraged us, spoken out for us, defended us and stuck her neck out for us,” tweeted Deb Raji, an AI researcher.
“She has made real sacrifices for the Black community. Now it’s time to stand with her!”
Google’s response to the dismissal
In an email, Mr Dean said there had been “a lot of speculation and misunderstanding” about the firing.
He alleged that Dr Gebru’s paper was submitted a day before its deadline, which was not enough time for Google’s review process. He also said the paper ignored much relevant research.
“Timnit responded with an email requiring that a number of conditions be met in order for her to continue working at Google, including revealing the identities of every person who [we] had spoken to and consulted as part of the review of the paper and the exact feedback.
“Timnit wrote that if we didn’t meet these demands, she would leave Google and work on an end date. We accept and respect her decision to resign from Google,” Mr Dean wrote.
Article originally posted on BBC
Author: Allan Bangirana
Allan Bangirana has a taste for all kinds of topics and usually writes about tech, entertainment, sports and community projects that make a difference in society.