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Google CEO's Apology Doesn't Cut It: 'Gaslighting'

Dr. Timnit Gebru says she was forced from AI research position after email criticizing company
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 10, 2020 8:39 AM CST

(Newser) – One of Google's most prominent Black female employees is no longer with Google, and a firestorm has erupted over her departure. Google CEO Sundar Pichai has issued an apology of sorts, insinuating Dr. Timnit Gebru, the former co-leader of Google's AI team, resigned. But Gebru is pushing back, saying she was fired after the company demanded she retract a research paper and she sent out an email blasting that demand. The New York Times notes the controversy swirling around Gebru is a sticky one, centered on "two thorny subjects" for Google: the risks of artificial intelligence and the lack of diversity in Google's workforce. More on what has gone down:

  • The backstory: Gebru had co-written a paper with four other Google researchers and a computational linguistics professor that highlighted flaws with a new type of language technology that could end up generating "biased and hateful language," per the Times. That technology includes a system that just so happens to underlie Google's search engine. Gebru was asked to retract the paper from an academic conference it had been submitted to or remove her name and those of the other Google employees.

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  • Gebru's response: The miffed researcher told management it needed to further address her concerns on the paper and other issues, and that she'd resign if they couldn't offer a valid explanation on why she was asked to retract the paper. Instead of holding further discussions, she says the company accepted her resignation and immediately cut off her company email and other resources.
  • An email to colleagues: Gebru says she thinks she was ultimately forced out because of an email she subsequently sent to Google's Brain Women and Allies mailing list, in which she voiced her frustration about the situation with the paper, as well as with diversity within Google. Gebru says she was told by a Google executive that her email was "inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager," per the Verge. Platformer has her email in its entirety.
  • Response from Gebru's boss: Jeffrey Dean, the head of Google's research team, calls what happened with Gebru "a difficult moment," but in an email to the group he addresses what he deems "a lot of speculation and misunderstanding" and defends the team's research process. He notes that the paper "didn't meet our bar for publication," and that "it ignored too much relevant research," among other complaints. Dean also says the paper was shared with his team for review "with a day's notice before its deadline"—and that Gebru and her co-authors submitted the paper anyway before a full review had been carried out.
  • Not so fast: A former Google PR employee took issue with Dean's explainer. "This is such a lie," William Fitzgerald posted on Twitter. "It was part of my job on the Google PR team to review these papers. Typically we got so many we didn't review them in time or a researcher would just publish & we wouldn't know until afterwards. We NEVER punished people for not doing proper process."
  • Review of the paper: MIT Technology Review takes a deeper dive into the paper in contention, noting that "the six collaborators drew on a wide breadth of scholarship. The paper's citation list, with 128 references, is notably long."

  • CEO's apology: "I've heard the reaction to Dr. Gebru's departure loud and clear," Pichai wrote in his internal memo to Google employees. "It seeded doubts and led some in our community to question their place at Google. I want to say how sorry I am for that, and I accept the responsibility of working to restore your trust." Axios notes that apology stopped just short of the company saying it was wrong to remove Gebru.
  • Gebru's response: She's not having it. "I see no plans for accountability and there was further gaslighting in the statement," she tweeted Wednesday, calling Pichai's apology a nonapology. "I see this as 'I'm sorry for how it played out but I'm not sorry for what we did to her yet,'" she adds.
  • Support for Gebru: Jack Clark, the policy director for artificial intelligence research group OpenAI, backs her up. "I typically stay out of stuff like this, but I'm absolutely shocked by this email," he notes of Pichai's missive. "It uses the worst form of corporate writing to present @timnitGebru firing as something akin to a weather event—something that just happened. But real people did this, and they're hiding."
  • And even more support: Members of Google's AI team have posted a letter "setting the record straight," noting that Gebru "did not resign" and that she followed the proper approval process through Google. There's also a petition signed by more than 2,300 Google employees and 3,700-plus academic, industry, and civic supporters demanding a better explanation from management on what happened and for an "unequivocal commitment to research integrity and academic freedom."
(Read more Google stories.)

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