Thousands of Google employees have signed an open letter condemning the firing of artificial intelligence (AI) researcher Dr Timnit Gebru.
The researcher was fired after demanding an explanation for the requested retraction of a research paper submitted by Gebru and her colleagues into machine learning algorithms and discrimination.
Timnit Gebru said she would resign over the retraction unless the firm explained its decision. In an internal email to colleagues, Gebru also voiced opinions on Google practices, stating that she believes the company is “silencing marginalized voices” and that it needs to do more to tackle these issues.
She was subsequently fired from Google for the communications, with Google Research vice president Megan Kacholia saying she respected her decision to resign and that the company couldn’t meet her demands.
However, Gebru denied that she resigned, stating instead that she was fired via email by Jeff Dean, a senior manager at Google dealing with AI Research.
Mr Dean has responded, saying that there had been “a lot of speculation and misunderstanding” about the firing.
“Timnit responded with an email requiring that a number of conditions are met in order for her to continue working at Google, including revealing the identities of every person who [we] had spoken to and consulted as part of the review of the paper and the exact feedback,” Dean said.
“Timnit wrote that if we didn’t meet these demands, she would leave Google and work on an end date. We accept and respect her decision to resign from Google.”
Google now faces criticism from employees, supporters and Twitter users over the decision, with many accusing the firm of racism and censorship.
The company has disputed Gebru’s version of events and said that her original email was “inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager.”
More than 1,600 Google employees and 2,512 industry supporters have now come forward in support of Gebru, signing a letter saying they “stand in solidarity” with the AI researcher after “unprecedented research censorship.”
“Until December 2, 2020, Dr Timnit Gebru was one of very few Black women Research Scientists at the company, which boasts a dismal 1.6% Black women employees overall,” the letter states.
“Her research accomplishments are extensive and have profoundly impacted academic scholarship and public policy. Dr Gebru is a pathbreaking scientist doing some of the most important work to ensure just and accountable AI and to create a welcoming and diverse AI research field.
The letter continues: “Research integrity can no longer be taken for granted in Google’s corporate research environment, and Dr Gebru’s firing has overthrown a working understanding of what kind of research Google will permit.
“This is also a moment of reckoning beyond Google.”
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Google is no stranger to controversy, with a series of issues arising in 2020 alone. The tech giant was caught up in legal proceeding in November after online service firms sent a joint letter to the EU antitrust chief to argue Google has “gained unjustified advantages” through its search engine.
The letter said that Google was giving preferential search results to its own services, such as those for accommodation, travel, and jobs.
In July the firm was also accused by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) of misleading Australian consumers about the use of their personal information, including internet activity.
The ACCC says that the company failed to gain consent after its move to combine personal information in Google accounts with browsing activities on non-Google websites.