Google’s ethical AI researchers complained of harassment long before Timnit Gebru’s firing

Google’s AI leadership came under fire in December when star ethics researcher Timnit Gebru was abruptly fired while working on a paper about the dangers of large language models. Now, new reporting from Bloomberg suggests the turmoil began long before her termination — and includes allegations of bias and sexual harassment.

Shortly after Gebru arrived at Google in 2018, she informed her boss that a colleague had been accused of sexual harassment at another organization. Katherine Heller, a Google researcher, reported the same incident, which included allegations of inappropriate touching. Google immediately opened an investigation into the man’s behavior. Bloomberg did not name the man accused of harassment, and The Verge does not know his identity.

The allegations coincided with an even more explosive story. Andy Rubin, the “father of Android” had received a $90 million exit package despite being credibly accused of sexual misconduct. The news sparked outrage at Google, and 20,000 employees walked out of work to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment.

Gebru and Margaret Mitchell, co-lead of the ethical AI team, went to AI chief Jeff Dean with a “litany of concerns,” according to Bloomberg. They told Dean about the colleague who’d been accused of harassment, and said there was a perceived pattern of women being excluded and undermined on the research team. Some were given lower roles than men, despite having better qualifications. Mitchell also said she’d been denied a promotion due to “nebulous complaints to HR about her personality.”

Dean was skeptical about the harassment allegations but said he would investigate, Bloomberg reports. He pushed back on the idea that there was a pattern of women on the research team getting lower-level positions than men.

After the meeting, Dean announced a new research project with the alleged harasser at the helm. Nine months later, the man was fired for “leadership issues,” according to Bloomberg. He’d been accused of misconduct at Google, although the investigation was still ongoing.

After the man was fired, he threatened to sue Google. The legal team told employees who’d spoken out about his conduct that they might hear from the man’s lawyers. The company was “vague” about whether it would defend the whistleblowers, Bloomberg reports.

The harassment allegation was not an isolated incident. Gebru and her co-workers reported additional claims of inappropriate behavior and bullying after the initial accusation.

In a statement emailed to The Verge, a Google spokesperson said: “We investigate any allegations and take firm action against employees who violate our clear workplace policies.”

Gebru said there were also ongoing issues with getting Google to respect the ethical AI team’s work. When she tried to look into a dataset released by Google’s self-driving car company Waymo, the project became mired in “legal haggling.” Gebru wanted to explore how skin tone impacted Waymo’s pedestrian-detection technology. “Waymo employees peppered the team with inquiries, including why they were interested in skin color and what they were planning to do with the results,” according to the Bloomberg article.

After Gebru went public about her firing, she received an onslaught of harassment from people who claimed that she was trying to get attention and play the victim. The latest news further validates her response that the issues she raised were part of a pattern of alleged bias on the research team.

Update April 21st, 6:05PM ET: Article updated with statement from Google.

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Google is restructuring its AI teams after Timnit Gebru’s firing

Google is reorganizing its responsible AI teams in the wake of Timnit Gebru’s firing. The ethical AI team will now roll up to Marian Croak, a prominent Black executive in the engineering department. Croak will also oversee employees focused on engineering fairness products, according to Bloomberg. She will report to Jeff Dean, who leads the company’s AI efforts.

The ethical AI team was not aware of the reorganization until news broke Wednesday night.

In a blog post confirming Croak’s appointment, Google said the executive will be leading “a new center of expertise on responsible AI within Google Research.”

The change is an attempt to stabilize the department, which has been in turmoil for months, Bloomberg reports. In December, Timnit Gebru, co-lead of the ethical AI team, announced she’d been abruptly fired. The following month, the company began investigating her counterpart Margaret Mitchell, who had been using a script to go through her emails to look for examples of discrimination against Gebru. Mitchell now says she’s been locked out of her corporate accounts for more than five weeks.

Prior to her dismissal, Gebru had been trying to publish a paper on the dangers of large language processing models. Megan Kacholia, vice president of Google Research, asked her to retract the paper. Gebru pushed back, saying the company needed to be more transparent about the publication process. Shortly afterward, she was fired.

The ethical AI team published a six-page letter in the wake of Gebru’s termination, calling on Kacholia to be replaced. “We have lost confidence in Megan Kacholia and we call for her to be removed from our reporting chain,” the letter read.

Now, the team may be getting its wish. As part of the reorganization, Kacholia will no longer lead the ethical AI researchers, according to Bloomberg. It’s not clear what this means for Margaret Mitchell, who is still being investigated by the company.

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Verge.

Update February 18th, 1:38PM EST: This article has been updated to include a blog post from Google.

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Google is changing its diversity and research policies after Timnit Gebru’s firing

Google is changing its policies related to research and diversity after completing an internal investigation into the firing of ethical AI team co-leader Timnit Gebru, according to Axios. The company intends to tie the pay of certain executives to diversity and inclusivity goals. It’s also making changes to how sensitive employee exits are managed.

Although Google did not reveal the results of the investigation, the changes seem to be direct responses to how the situation with Gebru went down. After Google demanded that a paper she co-authored be retracted, Gebru told research team management that she would resign from her position and work on a transition plan, unless certain conditions were met. Instead of a transition plan, the company immediately ended her employment while she was on vacation. This sparked backlash from members of her team, and even caused some Google engineers to quit in protest.

Google had claimed that Gebru’s paper was not submitted properly, though the research team disagreed. Google has now said it will “streamline its process for publishing research,” according to Axios, but the exact details of the policy changes weren’t given.

In an internal email to staff, Jeff Dean, head of AI at Google, wrote:

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 also apologized for how Gebru’s exit was handled, although he stopped short of calling it a firing.

The policy changes come a day after Google restructured its AI teams, a change which members of the ethical AI team were “the last to know about,” according to research scientist Alex Hanna, who is a part of the team.

Google declined to share the updated policies with The Verge, instead pointing to Axios’s article for details.

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Google targets AI ethics lead Margaret Mitchell after firing Timnit Gebru

Google has revoked Ethical AI team leader Margaret “Meg” Mitchell’s employee privileges and is currently investigating her activity, according to a statement provided by a company spokesperson. Should Google fire Mitchell, it will mean the company has effectively chosen to behead its own AI ethics team in under two months. In an interview with VentureBeat last month, former Google AI ethics co-lead Timnit Gebru said she had worked with Mitchell since 2018 to create one of the most diverse teams within Google Research.

Gebru tweeted Tuesday evening that Google’s move to freeze Mitchell’s employee account echoed the way hers was frozen before she was fired. When VentureBeat emailed Google to ask if Mitchell was still an employee, a spokesperson provided the following statement:

“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. We are actively investigating this matter as part of standard procedures to gather additional details.”

Last month, Google fired Gebru following a demand by Google leadership that she rescind an AI research paper she coauthored about the negative consequences of large-scale language models, including their disproportionate impact on marginalized communities in the form of environmental impact and perpetuating stereotypes. Since then, Google released a trillion parameter language model and told its AI researchers to strike a positive tone on topics deemed “sensitive. Some members of the AI research community have pledged not to review the work of Google researchers at academic conferences in protest.

Mitchell has publicly criticized actions taken by Google leaders like AI chief Jeff Dean following the ousting of Gebru.

After Gebru was fired, April Curley, a queer Black woman who said she was fired by Google last fall, publicly recounted numerous negative experiences during her time as a recruiter of talent from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU).

On Tuesday, news emerged that Google CEO Sundar Pichai will meet with HBCU leaders following allegations of racism and sexism at the company by current and former employees.

Members of Congress interested in regulating AI and more than 2,000 Google employees have joined prominent figures in the AI research community in questioning Gebru’s dismissal. Members of Google’s AI ethics team called for her reinstatement in a series of demands sent to company leadership.

Organizers cited the way Google treated Gebru and the impact AI can have on society as motivators behind the establishment of the Alphabet Workers Union, which was formed earlier this month and as of a week ago counted 700 members including Margaret Mitchell. Gebru had previously endorsed the idea of a workers union as a way to help protect AI researchers from company retribution.

“With AI permeating every aspect of our world—from criminal justice, to credit scores, to military applications—paying careful attention to ethics within the industry is critical,” the Alphabet Workers Union said in a statement shared with VentureBeat.

“As one of the most profitable players in the AI industry, Alphabet has a responsibility to continue investing in its ethical application. Margaret founded the Ethical AI team, built a cross-product area coalition around machine learning fairness, and is a critical member of academic and industry communities around the ethical production of AI. Regardless of the outcome of the company’s investigation, the ongoing targeting of leaders in this organization calls into question Google’s commitment to ethics—in AI and in their business practices. Many members of the Ethical AI team are AWU members and the membership of our union recognizes the crucial work that they do and stands in solidarity with them in this moment.”

The incoming Biden administration has in recent days shared a commitment to diversity and to addressing algorithmic bias and other AI-driven harms to society through its science and technology policy platform. Experts in AI, law, and policy told VentureBeat last month that Google’s treatment of Gebru could impact a range of policy matters, including the passage of stronger whistleblower protections for tech workers and more public funding of independent AI research.

What happens to Mitchell will continue to shape attitudes toward corporate self-governance and speculation about the voracity of research produced with Big Tech funding. A research paper published in late 2020 compared the way Big Tech funds AI ethics research to Big Tobacco’s history of funding health research.

Updated 7:18 am PT January 21 to include a statement from the Alphabet Workers Union.


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