Google CEO's apology for Timnit Gebru firing misses the mark

Sundar Pichai headshot
(Image credit: Google)

Google CEO Sundar Pichai has apologized for how the company handled the departure of female AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru, but his statement has received a lukewarm reception from the technology community.

Gebru, co-head of Google's AI ethics team, left the company after a confrontation with managers last week, stating that management fired her after speaking out about discrimination.

After a sustained backlash on social media and an open letter from hundreds of people in the technology community, including many Google employees, Pichai finally addressed the controversy in an internal memo obtained by Axios.

"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," he said. I want to say how sorry I am for that, and I accept the responsibility of working to restore your trust."

He promised a review of the incident and to explore how Google can improve, promising to find "de-escalation strategies" to avoid future incidents occurring.

"We need to accept responsibility for the fact that a prominent Black female leader with immense talent left Google unhappily," he added.

Gebru was unimpressed by the memo. She tweeted: "Don't paint me as an 'angry Black woman' for whom you need ‘de-escalation strategies.’"

Pichai's letter didn’t acknowledge Gebru's claim that the company fired her after complaining when managers at Google forced her to retract an AI ethics paper. Her manager, Google senior fellow and senior vice president of research Jeff Dean, said late last week that the company had accepted her resignation, which she disputed.

"I see no plans for accountability and there was further gaslighting in the statement," she added.

Jack Clark, policy director at AI research organization OpenAI, criticized Pichai for using "the worst form of corporate writing to present @timnitGebru firing as something akin to a weather event."

Since the open letter was published, over 2,300 Google employees have signed a petition calling for more accountability at Google. Over 3,700 external supporters also signed the petition.

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.