Dec 9, 2020 - Technology

Scoop: Google CEO pledges to investigate exit of top AI ethicist

Google CEO Sundar Pichai

Google CEO Sundar Pichai. Photo: Carsten Koall/Getty Images

Google CEO Sundar Pichai apologized Wednesday for the company's handling of the departure of AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru and said he would investigate the events and work to restore trust, according to an internal memo sent companywide and obtained by Axios.

Why it matters: Gebru's exit has provoked anger and consternation within Google as well as in academic circles, with thousands of people signing an open letter urging Google to reexamine its practices.

In the note, Pichai acknowledged the depth of the damage done by the company's actions and said the company would look at all aspects of the situation, but stopped short of saying the company made a mistake in removing Gebru.

"I’ve heard the reaction to Dr. Gebru’s departure loud and clear: it seeded doubts and led some in our community to question their place at Google," Pichai said in the memo. " I want to say how sorry I am for that, and I accept the responsibility of working to restore your trust."

Catch up quick:

  • Gebru left Google last week in what the company characterized as a resignation, but Gebru says was a firing.
  • Google had refused to give permission for Gebru and other Google researchers to attach their name or the company's name to an AI ethics paper that had been accepted for publication.
  • In response, Gebru sent her superiors an e-mail with several demands and said that if those conditions couldn't be met she would workout a timeline for her to leave Google with minimal disruption to her team. Instead, Google abruptly said it was "accepting her resignation" and cut off her access to internal e-mail.

Our thought bubble: While Pichai's memo strikes a contrite tone, it's unclear how far it will go to addressing the significant upset within Google's ranks, especially among those concerned with its commitments to diversity and academic freedom.

What they're saying: Responding on Twitter, Gebru and others dismissed the memo as not addressing the core issues around her ouster and failing to take responsibility for the active steps taken by the company and its executives to create the situation.

  • Timnit Gebru: "I see no plans for accountability and there was further gaslighting in the statement," she said in a tweet, adding in another tweet that the memo "does not say 'I'm sorry for what we did to her and it was wrong.' ... I see this as 'I'm sorry for how it played out but I'm not sorry for what we did to her yet.' "
  • OpenAI Policy Director Jack Clark: "I typically stay out of stuff like this, but I'm absolutely shocked by this email. It uses the worst form of corporate writing to present (Gebru's) firing as something akin to a weather event - something that just happened. But real people did this, and they're hiding.

Go deeper: Here's Pichai's full memo:

To: [email protected]
Subject: Committing to our work on racial equity and AI ethics
Hi everyone,
One of the things I’ve been most proud of this year is how Googlers from across the company came together to address our racial equity commitments. It’s hard, important work, and while we’re steadfast in our commitment to do better, we have a lot to learn and improve. An important piece of this is learning from our experiences like the departure of Dr. Timnit Gebru.
I’ve heard the reaction to Dr. Gebru’s departure loud and clear: 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.
First - we need to assess the circumstances that led up to Dr. Gebru’s departure, examining 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. Jeff and I have spoken and are fully committed to doing this. One of the best aspects of Google’s engineering culture is our sincere desire to understand where things go wrong and how we can improve.  
Second - we need to accept responsibility for the fact that a prominent Black, female leader with immense talent left Google unhappily. This loss has had a ripple effect through some of our least represented communities, who saw themselves and some of their experiences reflected in Dr. Gebru’s. It was also keenly felt because Dr. Gebru is an expert in an important area of AI Ethics that we must continue to make progress on -- progress that depends on our ability to ask ourselves challenging questions. 
It’s incredibly important to me that our Black, women, and underrepresented Googlers know that we value you and you do belong at Google. And the burden of pushing us to do better should not fall on your shoulders. We started a conversation together earlier this year when we announced a broad set of racial equity commitments to take a fresh look at all of our systems from hiring and leveling, to promotion and retention, and to address the need for leadership accountability across all of these steps. The events of the last week are a painful but important reminder of the progress we still need to make.
This is a top priority for me and Google leads, and I want to recommit to translating the energy that we’ve seen this year into real change as we move forward into 2021 and beyond. 
-- Sundar
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