Google Employees Call Black Scientist's Ouster 'Unprecedented Research Censorship'

Dec 4, 2020
Originally published on December 4, 2020 4:35 pm

Updated 11:36 p.m. ET

Hundreds of Google employees have published an open letter following the firing of an accomplished scientist known for her research into the ethics of artificial intelligence and her work showing racial bias in facial recognition technology.

That scientist, Timnit Gebru, helped lead Google's Ethical Artificial Intelligence Team until Tuesday.

Gebru, who is Black, says she was forced out of the company after a dispute over a research paper and an email she subsequently sent to peers expressing frustration over how the tech giant treats employees of color and women.

"Instead of being embraced by Google as an exceptionally talented and prolific contributor, Dr. Gebru has faced defensiveness, racism, gaslighting, research censorship, and now a retaliatory firing," the open letter said. By Thursday evening, more than 400 Google employees and hundreds of outsiders — many of them academics — had signed it.

The research paper in question was co-authored by Gebru along with four others at Google and two other researchers. It examined the environmental and ethical implications of an AI tool used by Google and other technology companies, according to NPR's review of the draft paper.

The 12-page draft explored the possible pitfalls of relying on the tool, which scans massive amounts of information on the Internet and produces text as if written by a human. The paper argued it could end up mimicking hate speech and other types of derogatory and biased language found online. The paper also cautioned against the energy cost of using such large-scale AI models.

According to Gebru, she was planning to present the paper at a research conference next year, but then her bosses at Google stepped in and demanded she retract the paper or remove all the Google employees as authors.

Gebru threatened to resign. She then took to an internal email list to vent about what she saw as empty promises to increase the number of underrepresented groups at Google.

Describing her own treatment as "silencing marginalized voices," she also claimed she was given an insufficient explanation for why Google opposed her research paper. It made her feel like her expertise was not valued at the company.

"Instead of being like, 'OK let's talk,' they're like, 'You know what? Nope, bye,' " Gebru told NPR."I don't feel like they thought it through. They could have had a much better outcome through dialogue."

In the open letter, Gebru's former colleagues described her as a "pathbreaking scientist" who sought to ensure the artificial intelligence systems were held accountable. They wrote that Gebru was one of the few Black female research scientists at Google.

Google's dismissing Gebru, according to the letter, amounted to "unprecedented research censorship."

Google had no immediate response to the letter.

But in an email sent internally and obtained by NPR, Google's head of AI research, Jeff Dean, said Gebru's paper "didn't meet our bar for publication," citing unspecified research she allegedly left out that undercut her premise.

Dean said since Gebru threatened to step down over Google's lack of support for her paper, she was not fired, but rather resigned — something Gebru and her supporters dispute.

"Given Timnit's role as a respected researcher and a manager in our Ethical AI team, I feel badly that Timnit has gotten to a place where she feels this way about the work we're doing," Dean wrote in the email.

Emails from Dean and Gebru were first reported by Platformer's Casey Newton.

Gebru's row with Google unleashed a flurry of support from researchers and others on Twitter, organizing around the hashtag #ISupportTimnit.

Researcher Joy Buolamwini, who co-authored a seminal 2018 study with Gebru showing facial recognition technology is far more likely to misidentify people of color, particularly women, than white men, said Gebru's termination could hurt Google's reputation in holding its own technology accountable.

"Ousting Timnit for having the audacity to demand intellectual integrity severely undermines Google's credibility for supporting rigorous research on AI ethics and algorithmic auditing," Buolamwini said. "She deserves more than Google knew how to give, and now she is an all-star free agent who will continue to transform the tech industry."

In July, Buolamwini and Gebru's research played a prominent role in Amazon, IBM and Microsoft pulling back on providing the technology to law enforcement agencies during the national protests over the death of George Floyd by police.

Ifeoma Ozoma, a former Pinterest executive who left the company after voicing concern over the treatment of Black employees, said in an interview with NPR that she believed Google would not have let go a white male employee for similar behavior.

"She was fired because of who she is and not because of what she did," said Ozoma, who also used to work at Google.

Gebru's ouster, which she first tweeted about on Wednesday night, came the same day the National Labor Relations Board said Google had illegally fired two employees who were involving in labor organizing last year. The federal agency also found that Google had illegally spied on employees who viewed a union organizing presentation.

Ozoma, who is a friend of Gebru, says Google has shown a pattern regarding employees who agitate for change inside the company.

"Google is doing this over and over again and seems to not care at all and seems to believe they can get away with it," she said.

In their open letter, the Google employees ask that senior leadership meet with the artificial intelligence team Gebru helped lead to explain how and why the paper Gebru co-authored was "unilaterally rejected" by management at the company.

Letting Gebru go could make Google's workplace less welcome to Black researchers and other employees of color, the letter signatories wrote.

"The termination is an act of retaliation against Dr. Gebru, and it heralds danger for people working for ethical and just AI — especially Black people and People of Color — across Google."

Editor's note: Google is among NPR's financial supporters.

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Some tech leaders have been trying to prevent artificial intelligence from adopting the same racist assumptions as real humans, and a Black woman who is a leading researcher in the field says she was fired from Google after a dispute over some of her work. A group of her former colleagues and academics wrote an open letter calling this, quote, "unprecedented research censorship." NPR's Bobby Allyn is following this story. And before we begin, we need to note that Google is a financial supporter of NPR. Hi, Bobby.


SHAPIRO: Tell us more about this researcher. Who is she, and what did she do at Google?

ALLYN: Yeah. Her name is Timnit Gebru, and she's kind of this all-star researcher in her field. She's done, you know, some of the leading studies into how things like facial recognition technology can be biased against women and people of color. She started a group called Black in AI because there are just so few Black scientists working on artificial intelligence. Her mission as a scientist has basically been to show how technology can hurt marginalized groups. And Google found that interesting enough that they hired her. And they had her lead a team of researchers who are studying the ethics of AI, something that's huge to the future of Google's business.

SHAPIRO: But her employment there was cut short. Tell us what happened.

ALLYN: Right. So Gebru and six other researchers had just finished a draft of a research paper they wanted to submit to a conference next year. And I've reviewed the paper, Ari, and it is pretty dense. But essentially, it's about a tool that can scan massive amounts of texts online and generate sentences that look like they were written by a human. Gebru wrote in the paper that this tool might end up mirroring some of the hate and discrimination and other awful things you could find on the Internet.

And Gebru says out of nowhere, she was told the paper had to be retracted. And she was like, why? And she wasn't told why. And so she said, if I'm not told why this paper has to be retracted, I might even resign over it. But, Ari, she never had a chance to. Gebru told me she found out what happened when she was talking to one of her team members.

TIMNIT GEBRU: Literally right then, she was, like, oh, my God. What? What's happening? What's happening? Did you resign? What's going on? What's going on? And I'm like, what?

ALLYN: Gebru says she never resigned but was fired.

GEBRU: I feel like people silenced me in the most fundamental way - by trying to censor my scientific voice.

SHAPIRO: Wow. So does Google have a different version of the story? What are they saying about this?

ALLYN: They do have a different version of the story. Google says that she threatened to resign unless management met with her to discuss why it wouldn't support the paper, and they wouldn't do that. So they considered it a resignation. But there's another layer to the story here. Gebru has been outspoken about the need for more women and more people of color at Google, and she wrote an email to co-workers criticizing Google's lack of progress in diversifying. She even encouraged them to stop participating in a diversity program Google had started. She saw it as useless. And in an email I reviewed sent by her boss at Google to colleagues, he sounded pretty irked about that. Since yesterday, though, more than 1,200 Google employees have signed an open letter demanding answers about how she was let go.

SHAPIRO: So, obviously, this has touched a nerve and deals with some larger issues than one employee. What are her supporters saying about this?

ALLYN: Yeah, it does. So the letter from her colleagues says she faced, quote, "defensiveness, racism, gaslighting, research censorship and now a retaliatory firing." And a big theme that's come out in the upwelling of social media reaction is that this, like you said, is not an isolated incident at Google. Some are connecting it to past walkouts over racial inclusion and sexual harassment. I talked to Ifeoma Ozoma. She's a consultant who works on tech accountability, and she's a former Google employee.

IFEOMA OZOMA: So Google is doing this over and over again and seems to not care at all and to believe that they can continue to get away with it.

ALLYN: Yeah. And so what Gebru's case has done is put the spotlight on Google and whether it can indeed handle dissent from its employees.

SHAPIRO: NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn, thank you.

ALLYN: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.