Google chief apologises for AI researcher’s dismissal

NEW YORK – Mr Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Google’s parent company Alphabet, apologised for the departure of a prominent artificial intelligence researcher, whose exit has roiled the company’s workforce and raised questions about its stated commitment to diversity and the responsible development of AI technology.

In an e-mail to employees on Wednesday (Dec 9), Mr Pichai, however, stopped short of saying that the company was wrong in how it hastened the resignation of Dr Timnit Gebru, who was a co-leader of Google’s Ethical AI team and one of its best-known Black female employees.

Dr Gebru said last week that the company fired her after she sent an e-mail that criticised the company’s lack of progress in hiring women and minorities as well as biases built into its artificial intelligence technology.

She said that she had demanded an explanation for why the company had told her to retract a paper that pinpointed flaws in a new breed of language technology, including a system built by Google that underpins the company’s search engine.

She said that short of a transparent explanation or further discussion, she would resign after an appropriate of time.

The company immediately accepted her statement as a resignation and cut her off from all company services and systems.

Colleagues have rallied to Dr Gebru’s defence, saying that Google did not treat her fairly and that this incident was an example of how Black employees are often mistreated at the company.

“I’ve heard the reaction to Dr Gebru’s departure loud and clear: It seeded doubts and led some in our community to question their place at Google. I want to say how sorry I am for that, and I accept the responsibility of working to restore your trust,” Mr Pichai wrote in an e-mail viewed by The New York Times.

Axios had reported about the e-mail earlier.

“We need to assess the circumstances that led to Dr Gebru’s departure, examining where we could have improved and led a more respectful process,” he added.

“We will begin a review of what happened to identify all the points where we can learn.”

On Twitter, Dr Gebru said Mr Pichai’s e-mail was not a true apology.

“I see this as ‘I’m sorry for how it played out but I’m not sorry for what we did to her yet’.”

The parting with Dr Gebru is especially fraught for Google, because it involves two thorny subjects for the company – a lack of diversity in its workforce and concerns about the dangerous consequences of artificial intelligence technology.

Dr Gebru, who joined the company last year from Stanford, was vocal about the importance of the company’s efforts to hire and retain more women as well as Black employees, who currently for less than 2 per cent of the company’s workforce.

In addition, her research to examine the long-term implications of AI put her at odds with the company’s strategic goals of depending on artificial intelligence as the breakthrough technology to improve most, if not all, of its products.

Last week, about 2,000 Google employees signed a petition protesting her dismissal from the company and demanding that executives within its research organisation be more transparent about the circumstances of Dr Gebru’s exit.

On Monday, members of Google’s Ethical AI team published a post that disputed some of the company’s statements regarding her exit, including the company’s assertion that she resigned and was not fired.

Mr Jeff Dean, one of Google’s most senior executives who oversees the company’s AI research arm, met with a group of employees on Tuesday to explain what took place with Dr Gebru, but many walked away from the meeting even more upset.

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