Google doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to ethics.
What you need to know
- Google’s AI ethics team has made a list of demands following the removal of AI researcher Timnit Gebru.
- The demands include the removal of the company vice president from the team’s chain of information.
- The team also calls for Google to reinstate Gebru, albeit to a higher position than she was before.
Google isn’t known to have the best ethical reputation. The company is constantly being hit with privacy and antitrust allegations and is currently in the midst of several lawsuits surrounding its practices. So when this ethical debacle surfaced surrounding the dismissal of Google AI ethics team co-lead, it definitely wasn’t a good look for the company. Now a six-page letter has been presented to Google CEO, Sundar Pichai, listing several demands for the company to make things right.
The circumstances surrounding the terms on which Timnit Gebru was dismissed from Google are complicated, and we have a more comprehensive look at the situation in a separate article. In a nutshell, Gebru wrote a paper that criticizes language models that are too large to mitigate, and expresses concern on how these language models can lead to ethical risks such as environmental racism. These same AI technologies are found in many applications used in today’s best Android devices, so Google was understandably concerned with the implications. Her paper was not immediately accepted, and it was requested that she make changes to reflect Google’s recent efforts to address such concerns.
Where the situation gets a little cloudy is how things were handled after that, but after Google allegedly failed to meet Gebru’s demands for her to make the changes, she was dismissed. The aftermath grew into an internal, and very much public, clash between the Google AI ethics team and company executives. Now the remaining team has presented company executives with a list of demands in a letter titled “The Future of Ethical AI at Google Research”.
Google’s short-sighted decision to fire and retaliate against a core member of the Ethical AI team makes it clear that we need swift and structural changes if this work is to continue, and if the legitimacy of the field as a whole is to persevere. This research must be able to contest the company’s short-term interests and immediate revenue agendas, as well as to investigate AI that is deployed by Google’s competitors with similar ethical motives.
As part of the letter, the research team is calling for the removal of engineering Vice President Megan Kacholia from the reporting structure, stating that they have “lost trust in her as a leader”. It also asks that both she and AI Chief, Jeff Dean, to apologize to Gebru. Among other demands, such as keeping employees that defend Gebru safe from retaliation, the letter also proposes Google allow Gebru to return to her position at a higher level.
While CEO Sundar Pichai apologized and committed to investigating the situation, the researchers are asking that they be given the details of her dismissal so they can have a comprehensive look at the situation from both sides. Even U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker have also chimed in, asking for the details of Pichai’s internal investigation and to look into how Google addresses discrimination within the company.
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