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Google’s Fired star AI ethics researcher, one of a few Black women in the field for a critical email

Timnit Gebru, who has criticized the company’s lack of diversity, emailed co-workers that she felt “constantly dehumanized." Her managers, she said, abruptly fired her shortly after.

A prominent artificial-intelligence computer scientist who helped pioneer research into facial recognition software’s bias against people of color said she was abruptly fired from Google for sending an email criticizing the company’s treatment of minority employees and saying she felt “constantly dehumanized.” Timnit Gebru said in a series of tweets Wednesday night that she was fired from her post as the co-leader of Google’s Ethical Artificial Intelligence Team, where she had spearheaded research that helped elevate the company’s status as a leader in assessing the technology’s fairness and risks.

Google officials did not respond to requests for comment. Gebru also did not respond to requests, but in an interview, Thursday with Bloomberg said Google’s actions represented “the most fundamental silencing.” Gebru said Wednesday that she had been fired by Jeff Dean, the head of Google’s AI division, for an email she had sent to Brain Women and Allies, a mailing list for researchers on the company’s AI team known as Google Brain. Her dismissal threatens to reignite anger over Google’s treatment of its workforce, particularly its employees of color. The company, which long evangelized its open culture, has cracked down on employee dissent over the past two years, particularly against marginalized and minority workers. Google has previously fired employees who advocated for increased diversity or critiqued the company’s ethics. Inioluwa Deborah Raji, an AI researcher on a fellowship with the Mozilla Foundation who has worked with her, said Gebru had helped lend Google an air of legitimacy and credibility as it worked to portray itself as committed to inclusion and ethical research. Despite Google’s reputation as a leader in AI ethics within the tech industry, its efforts have been marred by controversy and internal criticism. It disbanded its AI Ethics Council, an external advisory board, weeks after launching in March 2019 when employees protested the inclusion of Heritage Foundation president Kay Coles James, who had recently shared anti-immigrant and anti-transgender views, according to a petition signed by thousands of Google employees. Tech companies are asking their black employee groups to fix Silicon Valley’s race problem — often for free Gebru occupied a rare role in a Silicon Valley culture long criticized for its racial homogeneity. As an Ethiopian American woman in a senior role at the tech giant, she became well known for work that critically examined the technology’s societal biases and repercussions.

She co-founded Black in AI, an advocacy group that has held workshops at major AI conferences and pushed for more Black roles in AI development and research. She has also regularly criticized tech companies, including Google, for failing to hire more workers of color and treating them differently once they're on board. Two days before announcing her firing, Gebru had solicited advice regarding whistleblower-like protections for AI-ethics researchers, tweeting, “With the amount of censorship & intimidation that goes on towards people in specific groups, how does anyone trust any real research in this area can take place?” Tensions between Gebru and the company also stemmed from research by Gebru’s team that was critical of AI systems, known as large language models, said one machine-learning researcher who had reviewed the study and requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the unpublished work. The company may one day seek to capitalize on such systems in consumer-facing products that could generate convincing passages of text that are difficult to distinguish from human writing, the researcher said. Google already uses language-processing AI systems to translate between languages, look for hate speech, and understand people’s writing and speech online. But other firms have increasingly sought to push the technology forward with systems, like the AI lab OpenAI’s GPT-3 system, which has been used to generate seemingly human-created news reports, poems, and computer code. Google fires four workers, including software engineers at the center of San Francisco worker rally Gebru told Bloomberg that the company had asked for her to remove Google employees’ names from, or retract outright, the research paper on language models, which was to be submitted for an AI conference next year. In an open letter Thursday evening, a growing collective of 236 Google employees and 350 supporters from academia, industry, and civil society issued a list of demands for Google Research leadership, including asking Dean to meet with the Ethical AI team to explain the decision to “censor” Gebru’s paper. The group also demanded broader transparency. “This has become a matter of public concern, and there needs to be public accountability to ensure any trust in Google Research going forward,” the letter reads.