Jan 19, 2021 - Technology

Scoop: Google is investigating the actions of another top AI ethicist

Google CEO Sundar Pichai

Google CEO Sundar Pichai. Photo by Mateusz Wlodarczyk/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Google is investigating recent actions by Margaret Mitchell, who helps lead the company's ethical AI team, Axios has confirmed.

Why it matters: The probe follows the forced exit of Timnit Gebru, a prominent researcher also on the AI ethics team at Google whose ouster ignited a firestorm among Google employees.

What's happening: According to a source, Mitchell had been using automated scripts to look through her messages to find examples showing discriminatory treatment of Gebru before her account was locked.

  • The AI ethics team has been under great stress since Gebru's exit, while thousands of people both within and outside of Google have criticized the company's actions.
  • Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in a December memo that the company was looking further into its treatment of Gebru. Google has yet to detail any findings from that inquiry.
  • Workers cited that treatment as among the reasons for forming a minority union for employees at Google parent firm Alphabet.

What they're saying: In a statement, Google confirmed that Mitchell's email account has been locked and that the company is investigating why Mitchell downloaded a large number of files and shared them with people outside the company.

"Our security systems automatically lock an employee’s corporate account when they detect that the account is at risk of compromise due to credential problems or when an automated rule involving the handling of sensitive data has been triggered. In this instance, yesterday our systems detected that an account had exfiltrated thousands of files and shared them with multiple external accounts. We explained this to the employee earlier today."
— Google, in a statement to Axios.
  • Mitchell did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Between the lines: Earlier Tuesday, Mitchell had posted a tweet critical of Google CEO Sundar Pichai's planned meeting with historically Black college and university leaders, writing:

"Say you have a problem with consistently alienating Black women and have caused serious damage in their lives. You could: A) try to undo that damage B) try to find more Black people to like you (the tokenism approach). Good luck....."
— Margaret Mitchell, on Twitter.
  • Gebru tweeted earlier Tuesday that Mitchell's corporate e-mail appeared not to be working.

What's next: "We are actively investigating this matter as part of standard procedures to gather additional details," a Google representative said.

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