Timnit Gebru—a giant in the world of AI and then co-lead of Google’s AI ethics team— was pushed out of her job in December.
Gebru had been fighting with Google over a research paper that she’d coauthored, which explored the risks of the AI models that the search giant uses to power its core products, including almost every English query on Google. The paper called out the potential biases (racial, gender, and more) of these language models, as well as the outsize carbon emissions required to compute them. Google wanted the paper retracted; Gebru refused. After the company abruptly announced her departure, Google AI chief Jeff Dean insinuated that her work was not up to snuff—despite Gebru’s credentials.
The backlash was immediate. Thousands of Googlers and outside researchers signed a protest letter and called out Google for attempting to marginalize its critics, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds. A champion of diversity and equity in AI, Gebru is a Black woman, and was one of the few in Google’s research organization. In the aftermath, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai pledged an investigation, the results of which have not yet been released. (Google declined to comment for this story.)
To many who work in AI ethics, Gebru’s ouster was a shock but not a surprise, and served as a stark reminder of how Big Tech dominates their field. A handful of giant companies are able to use their money to direct the development of AI and decide who gets to critique it.
At stake is the equitable development of a technology that already underpins many of our most important automated systems. From credit scoring and criminal sentencing to healthcare access and whether you get a job interview or not, AI algorithms are making life-altering decisions for people, with no oversight or transparency. The harms these models can cause out in the world are becoming apparent: false convictions based on biased facial recognition technology, discriminatory hiring systems, racist predictive policing dashboards.
For AI to work for all members of society, the power dynamics across the industry have to change. The people most likely to be harmed by algorithms—those in marginalized communities—need a say in its development. “If the right people are not at the table, it’s not going to work,” Gebru says. “And in order for the right people to be at the table, they have to have power.”
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