Fired female Google AI scientist claims she was 'constantly dehumanized'

The Google logo on the side of its headquarters
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A leading artificial intelligence (AI) scientist at Google has accused the company of firing her for criticizing its treatment of women and employees of color.

Timnit Gebru, former staff research scientist and co-lead of the company's Ethical AI team, also accused the company of forcing her to retract a paper questioning its use of AI tools.

In an email to a Google mailing list obtained by The Platformer, Gebru complained that she was "constantly dehumanized" while working at Google, adding there was no incentive to hire more women at the company and Google retaliated when she tried to raise those issues.

Gebru was also angry about the treatment of a research paper she wrote with four others at Google examining the ethical implications of AI text mining and writing technologies. She alleged that Google managers told her to retract it at short notice with little explanation and ignored her requests for clarification.

"There's an additional layer saying any privileged person can decide that they don't want your paper out with zero conversation," she said. "So you're blocked from adding your voice to the research community – your work which you do on top of the other marginalization you face here."

Google employees retaliated with an open letter announcing solidarity with Gebru. It criticized the company for lack of diversity in the workforce.

"Instead of being embraced by Google as an exceptionally talented and prolific contributor, Dr. Gebru has faced defensiveness, racism, gaslighting, research censorship, and now a retaliatory firing," it said.

The Platformer also reproduced an email said to be from Google Senior Fellow and senior vice-president of research Jeff Dean to Google employees. The mail accused Gebru of issuing an ultimatum by threatening to resign unless managers told her who was involved in the review of the paper and that they accepted her resignation.

Gebru denied this on Twitter, saying that Dean fired her and the company immediately cut off her corporate account.

The open letter, which almost 1,800 people have signed at the time of this writing, also challenged Google's claim.

"This is false," the letter claimed. "In their direct correspondence with Dr. Gebru, these executives informed her that her termination was immediate, and pointed to an email she sent to a Google Brain diversity and inclusion mailing list as pretext."

Google's AI principles, published in 2018, state that its AI applications should avoid unfair bias, be accountable, and uphold high standards of scientific excellence.

The letter concluded Dean and his colleagues should meet with the Ethical AI team to explain the rejection process, and the company should be more transparent to the public about its decisions.

This isn't the first time employees have stood up to Google; staff demanded the company cancel police contracts in January.

Danny Bradbury

Danny Bradbury has been a print journalist specialising in technology since 1989 and a freelance writer since 1994. He has written for national publications on both sides of the Atlantic and has won awards for his investigative cybersecurity journalism work and his arts and culture writing. 

Danny writes about many different technology issues for audiences ranging from consumers through to software developers and CIOs. He also ghostwrites articles for many C-suite business executives in the technology sector and has worked as a presenter for multiple webinars and podcasts.