Google To Investigate Shady Departure of Black AI Ethicist Timnit Gebru

Photo: Kimberly White / Stringer (Getty Images)

After more than 2,200 employees signed a letter on Monday condemning Google’s reported decision to terminate a Black artificial intelligence ethicist, the company’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, apologized on Wednesday for the way the departure had been handled and said that the incident was being investigated.

In a series of tweets, Dr. Timnit Gebru, a staff research scientist and co-lead of ethical AI at Google, said on Monday that she had been abruptly fired by the company after she had expressed her frustration about Google’s shoddy diversity initiatives in an email. The company, she wrote, fosters a culture of “zero accountability,” where there is no real incentive for the leadership to ever change hands.

“Your life gets worse when you start advocating for underrepresented people, you start making the other leaders upset,” Gebru wrote in the email. “There is no way more documents or more conversations will achieve anything.”

But Gebru and Google executives disagree on the nature of her departure. While Gebru maintains that she was terminated — with her computer access abruptly cut off before she even had time to make her manager aware of how things were developing — Jeff Dean, the head of Google’s AI unit, claimed in an email that Gebru had threatened to resign unless she was told which colleagues deemed a draft paper she wrote was unpublishable, a demand which he rejected.

In his Wednesday memo to staff, Pichai acknowledged the public outcry surrounding Gebru’s departure, which had intensified when prominent figures including NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund president Sherrilyn Ifill had chimed in to note that Gebru’s firing had been “absolutely infuriating” and “a disaster.”

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“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,” Pichai wrote in the memo, obtained by Axios. “I want to say how sorry I am for that, and I accept the responsibility of working to restore your trust.”

Pichai also said that the company would “assess the circumstances that led up to Dr. Gebru’s departure, examining where we could have improved and led a more respectful process.” Notably, he did not at any point suggest that Google had made a mistake in severing ties with Gebru.

But Gebru blasted the memo shortly after its release as a disingenuous apology — one that failed to address the issues that had precipitated her departure and essentially amounted to an ‘I’m sorry you feel hurt’ PR stunt.

“I see no plans for accountability and there was further gaslighting in the statement,” Gebru said in a tweet, adding that the memo “does not say ‘I’m sorry for what we did to her and it was wrong.’ … I see this as ‘I’m sorry for how it played out but I’m not sorry for what we did to her yet.’”

OpenAI Policy Director Jack Clark also waded into the fray on Wednesday to denounce Pichai’s lackluster apology.

“I typically stay out of stuff like this, but I’m absolutely shocked by this email,” Clark tweeted. “It uses the worst form of corporate writing to present [Gebru’s] firing as something akin to a weather event – something that just happened. But real people did this, and they’re hiding.”

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Brianna Provenzano