Google fires second AI ethics researcher following internal investigation

Google has fired Margaret Mitchell, co-lead of the ethical AI team, after she used an automated script to look through her emails in order to find evidence of discrimination against her coworker Timnit Gebru. The news was first reported by Axios.

Mitchell’s firing comes one day after Google announced a reorganization to its AI teams working on ethics and fairness. Marian Croak, a vice president in the engineering organization, is now leading “a new center of expertise on responsible AI within Google Research,” according to a blog post.

Mitchell joined Google in 2016 as a senior research scientist, according to her LinkedIn. Two years later, she helped start the ethical AI team alongside Gebru, a renowned researcher known for her work on bias in facial recognition technology.

In December 2020, Mitchell and Gebru were working on a paper about the dangers of large language processing models when Megan Kacholia, vice president of Google Brain, asked that the article be retracted. Gebru pushed back, saying the company needed to be more open about why the research wasn’t acceptable. Shortly afterwards, she was fired, though Google characterized her departure as a resignation.

After Gebru’s termination, Mitchell became openly critical of Google executives, including Google AI division head Jeff Dean and Google CEO Sundar Pichai. In January, she lost her corporate email access after Google began investigating her activity.

“After conducting a review of this manager’s conduct, we confirmed that there were multiple violations of our code of conduct, as well as of our security policies, which included the exfiltration of confidential business-sensitive documents and private data of other employees,” Google said in a statement to Axios about Mitchell’s firing.

On Friday, Google announced it was making changes to its research and diversity policies, following an investigation into Gebru’s termination. In an internal email, Jeff Dean apologized to staff for how Gebru’s departure was handled. “I heard and acknowledge what Dr. Gebru’s exit signified to female technologists, to those in the Black community and other underrepresented groups who are pursuing careers in tech, and to many who care deeply about Google’s responsible use of AI. It led some to question their place here, which I regret,” he said.

The ethical AI team has been in crisis since Gebru’s firing in December. After the reorganization announcement yesterday, senior researcher Alex Hanna wrote that the team was not aware of Croak’s appointment until the news broke publicly Wednesday night. “We were told to trust the process, trust in decision-makers like Marian Croak to look out for our best interests,” she said on Twitter. “But these decisions were made behind our backs.”

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Google fires Ethical AI lead Margaret Mitchell

Google fired Margaret “Meg” Mitchell, lead of the Ethical AI team, today. The move comes just hours after Google announced diversity policy changes and Google AI chief Jeff Dean sent an apology in the wake of the firing of former Google AI ethics lead Timnit Gebru in late 2020.

Mitchell, a staff research scientist and Google employee since 2016, had been under an internal investigation by Google for five weeks. In an email sent to Google shortly before Mitchell was placed on investigation, Mitchell called Google firing Gebru “forever after a really, really, really terrible decision.”

A statement from a Google spokesperson about Mitchell reads: “After conducting a review of this manager’s conduct, we confirmed that there were multiple violations of our code of conduct, as well as of our security policies, which included the exfiltration of confidential business-sensitive documents and private data of other employees.”

When asked for comment, Margaret declined, describing her mood as “confused and hurting.”

Mitchell was a member of the recently formed Alphabet Workers Union. Gebru has previously suggested that union protection could be a way for AI researchers to shield themselves from retaliation like the kind she encountered when a research paper she co-wrote was reviewed last year.

Earlier today, Dean apologized if Black and female employees were hurt by the firing of Gebru. Additional changes to Google diversity policy were also announced today, including tying DEI goals to performance evaluations for employees at the VP level and above.

On Thursday, Google restructured its AI ethics efforts that brings 10 teams within Google Research, including the Ethical AI team, under Google VP Marian Croak. Croak will report directly to Dean. In a video message, Croak called for more “diplomatic” conversations when addressing ways AI can harm people. Multiple members of the Ethical AI team said they found out about the restructure in the press.

“Marian is a highly accomplished trailblazing scientist that I had admired and even confided in. It’s incredibly hurtful to see her legitimizing what Jeff Dean and his subordinates have done to me and my team,” Gebru told VentureBeat about the decision Thursday.

Mitchell and Gebru came together to co-lead the Ethical AI team in 2018, eventually creating what’s believed to be one of the most diverse divisions within Google Research. The Ethical AI team has published research on model cards to bring transparency to AI and how to perform internal algorithm audits. Last year, the Ethical AI team hired its first sociologists and began to consider how to address algorithmic fairness with critical race theory. At the VentureBeat Transform conference in 2019, Mitchell called diversity in hiring practices important to ethical deployments of AI.

The way Gebru was fired led to allegations of gaslighting, racism, and retaliation, as well as questions from thousands of Google employees and members of Congress with records of authoring legislation to regulate algorithms. Members of the Ethical AI team requested Google leadership take a series of steps to restore trust.

A Google spokesperson told VentureBeat that the Google legal team has worked with outside counsel to conduct an investigation into how Google fired Gebru. Google also worked with outside counsel to investigate employee allegations of bullying and mistreatment by DeepMind cofounder Mustafa Suleyman, who led ethics research efforts at the London-based startup acquired by Google in 2014.

The spokesperson did not provide details when asked what steps the organization has taken to meet demands to restore trust the Ethical AI team made or those laid out in a letter signed by more than 2,000 employees shortly after the firing of Gebru that called for a transparent investigation in full view of the public.

A Google spokesperson also told VentureBeat that Google will work more closely with HR in regard to “certain employee exits that are sensitive in nature.” In a December 2020 interview with VentureBeat, Gebru called a companywide memo that called de-escalation strategies part of the solution “dehumanizing” and a response that paints her as an angry Black woman.

Updated 5:40 p.m. to include comment from Margaret Mitchell


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