Black Lives Apparently Don't Matter: Google fires senior AI researcher, then claims she resigned
Timnit Gebru was one of the few Black women researchers at the firm
|Dec 3, 2020|
It's the holiday season, which means that it's once again time for Google to summarily fire members of minority groups and make false claims about what happened. Last year it was the Thanksgiving Four; this year, it's Timnit Gebru, co-lead of Google's Ethical AI team, who has just been fired while on vacation (!) because management didn't like what she wrote in an email to an internal allyship list. This is an evolving story, since the public doesn't yet have a copy of the key email in question, however the pieces that we know strongly resemble a known recurring pattern: minority group member sees a problem, minority group member speaks out, Google immediately fires minority group member for daring to challenge Google's behavior.
Some extracts from Business Insider:
One of Google's leading AI researchers says she's been fired in retaliation for an email to other employees
Timnit Gebru, a technical co-lead of Google's ethical-artificial-intelligence team, said in a series of tweets on Wednesday that she was fired by the tech giant.
Gebru is widely respected for her work examining bias in artificial intelligence and is a rare senior Black woman in the field...
"Apparently my manager's manager sent an email my direct reports saying she accepted my resignation. I hadn't resigned — I had asked for simple conditions first and said I would respond when I'm back from vacation..."
Gebru also called out Google's AI chief, Jeff Dean, who oversees the entire division and who Gebru said would have likely signed off on the email sent to her on Wednesday. "He didn't like my email to a mailing list for women & allies at brain..."
Gebru has become a renowned figure in the ethical-AI space whose work has explored algorithmic bias and the implications of data mining. Gebru also cofounded Black in AI, a collaborative community working to increase the number of Black people working in artificial intelligence.
As Gebru tweeted details of her termination on Wednesday, big names in AI and tech rallied around her.
"I thought this was a joke because it seemed ridiculous that anyone would fire @timnitGebru given her expertise, her skills, her influence," former Reddit CEO Ellen K. Pao tweeted. "This is one of the many times when I think there is just no hope for the tech industry." [...]
In what may prove to be a prescient article, in October of this year Fast Company covered Gebru's appearance on a panel discussion in an article titled "The biggest barrier to humane, ethical AI: Capitalism itself" which noted that "[minority voices] still butt up against systems of power that value profit and the status quo over ensuring that AI is built in a way that isn’t harmful to marginalized people and society writ large."
Gebru has also been featured in, and interviewed for many other articles:
- MIT Technology Review, February 2018: “‘We’re in a diversity crisis’: cofounder of Black in AI on what’s poisoning algorithms in our lives”
- New York Times, June 2020: “A Case for Banning Facial Recognition”
In a likely-retaliatory firing situation like this one, the first step that I always suggest is for the targeted employee to retain a labor attorney -- and in fact the news suggests that Gebru is doing precisely that. The second step is to publicly tell your story, since one of the only pressures that Google responds to is negative news coverage that impacts the Google brand. There are a large number of reporters available who cover the technology beat, and most of them maintain masthead pages that include their secure contact information, so with any luck, at some point we'll have more details about the story including a copy of the email. Reporter Hugh Langley, who wrote the Business Insider piece above, even notes in the article that he's available for followup conversations:
Are you a current or former Googler with more to share? You can contact this reporter securely using the encrypted messaging app Signal (+1-628-228-1836) or encrypted email (email@example.com). Reach out using a nonwork device.
Alphabetworkers is a public, low-traffic read-only list of news extracts and commentary relevant to Alphabet workers and the Google reform movement, curated by former Google employee Bruce Hahne. It receives a maximum of one email per day. All article extracts are intended to be within fair use. To sign up, go to alphabetworkers.substack.com
It's OK to forward this message in its entirety, but please preserve the how-to-sign-up information.
A FAQ for this list is available at www.alphabetworkers.org/alphabetworkers-email-list. Bruce is reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org