A series of leaked emails, tweets, and online articles have shown that Timnit Gebru’s ‘exit’ from Google was the result of a conflict over a research paper. With Google facing a severe backlash from its employees now, let’s see the chain of events and the tech giant’s defensive response to the incident.
In the previous piece we discussed at length the background of Timnit Gebru. Click here to read the fully story.
Crux of the Matter
What Went Wrong?
Timnit says she was fired this week after sending an email to Google Brain Women and Allies, an internal resource group at the company.
Gebru had been working on a research paper but ran into resistance from her superiors. Thereafter she expressed her frustration in that email which Google found “inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager.”
Who Dismissed Her?
Megan Kacholia, VP of engineering at Google Research, who reports to the company’s renowned A.I. lead, Jeff Dean fired Gebru. Basically, Gebru had been working on a research paper but ran into resistance with her superiors. Thereafter she expressed her frustration in that email which miffed Google.
But What Did Her Email Say?
It detailed the struggles Gebru experienced working on ethics research within Google and the future of minorities as employees there.
Then What Did The Paper Say?
The paper titled “On the Dangers of Stochastic Parrots: Can Language Models Be Too Big?”, had stated the risks linked to large language models. This fits with Timnit’s role at both Google and Black in AI: to improve the ability of AI tech to do social good.
Risks Outlined In Timnit’s Paper
- Environmental costs like common carbon footprint benchmarks.
- Estimated financial costs like training a model.
- Research opportunity costs.
- Massive amount of text which can contain racist, sexist, and other abusive references, used in the training data, can be hard to audit.
What Do Critics Say?
Many top leaders are supporting Gebru online, with 1,400+ Google staff and 1,900 other supporters already signing a letter of protest against her dismissal.
Déjà Vu Exit
Another famous A.I. ethicist, Meredith Whittaker, had publicly resigned from Google in 2018, after facing internal retaliation for helping organize employee walkouts consisting of 20,000 Googlers.
- The AI effect occurs when onlookers discount the behavior of an artificial intelligence program by arguing that it is not real intelligence. Author Pamela McCorduck writes: “It’s part of the history of the field of artificial intelligence that every time somebody figured out how to make a computer do something, there was a chorus of critics to say, ‘that’s not thinking’.”
- Her is a 2013 American science-fiction romantic comedy film. The film follows Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who develops a relationship with Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), an artificially intelligent virtual assistant personified through a female voice.
- An eigenface is the name given to a set of eigenvectors when used in the computer vision problem of human face recognition. The approach of using eigenfaces for recognition was developed by Sirovich and Kirby (1987).
- Wikipedia – 2018 Google walkouts
- One Zero – Noted A.I. Ethicist Timnit Gebru Let Go From Google Following Tense Email Exchange
- Platformer – The withering email that got an ethical AI researcher fired at Google
- Google Walkout – Standing with Dr. Timnit Gebru — #ISupportTimnit #BelieveBlackWomen
- ARXIV – Attention is all you need
- MIT Tech Review – We read the paper that forced Timnit Gebru out of Google. Here’s what it says