Dec 10, 2020 - Technology

Google CEO's memo on AI expert's ouster draws fire

Photo of Google CEO Sundar Pichai smiling

Google CEO Sundar Pichai. Photo: Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

Far from stemming criticism, a memo Wednesday from Google CEO Sundar Pichai has further inflamed tensions over the company's treatment of prominent AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru.

Why it matters: Google is facing an intense backlash, especially from those who say the incident reflects a weak commitment both to academic freedom in its research unit and to true diversity and inclusion. Gebru is one of the few prominent Black women in the artificial intelligence ethics field and has done groundbreaking work around bias within AI systems.

Driving the news:

  • As first reported by Axios, Pichai sent a companywide memo on Wednesday, expressing contrition over the way events unfolded and promising further inquiry.
  • "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."
  • However, Gebru and others said the memo failed to adequately take responsibility for Google's actions.

Gebru said on Twitter that Pichai's memo offered "no plans for accountability" and included "further gaslighting."

  • "I see this as 'I'm sorry for how it played out but I'm not sorry for what we did to her yet,' " Gebru said.

Others also criticized the note, saying that Google has pledged to do better many times before and that Pichai neither rectified the harm nor held anyone accountable.

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.

The big picture: The situation at Google is reminiscent of incidents at other tech companies where Black employees, already vastly underrepresented, say they faced discrimination or harassment and were targeted for retribution.

Ifeoma Ozoma, who raised issues of her own before leaving Pinterest, noted that the memo and its coverage were similar to one issued by that company after the backlash that ensued following her departure."The parallels are triggering," she told Axios. "Replace the company and names of the Black women and it’s the same almost word for word."

  • Likewise with the media coverage, Ozoma said, noting that Google's memo was portrayed by Axios and others as an olive branch rather than as she sees it: A PR effort that merely does further harm by mischaracterizing the situation, something that also happened with the Pinterest memo.

Go deeper: Tech's race problem is all about power

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