Timnit Gebru: Google staff rally behind fired AI researcher

 Google AI Research Scientist Timnit Gebru speaks onstage at a 2018 conference

Hundreds of Google staff have signed a letter backing a leading AI ethics researcher who was sacked by Google.

Timnit Gebru says she was fired after sending an internal email that accused Google of "silencing marginalised voices".

Hundreds of colleagues have signed a letter accusing the search giant of racism and censorship, while Twitter users have rallied around Dr Gebru using the hashtag #BelieveBlackWomen.

Google disputes her version of events.

Dr Gebru is a well-respected researcher in the field of ethics and the use of artificial intelligence.

She is well-known for her work on racial bias in technology such as facial recognition, and has criticised systems that fail to recognise black faces.

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Her co-author on one of those well-known papers, Joy Buolamwini, said Dr Gebru "deserved more" from Google.

"Ousting Timnit for having the audacity to demand research integrity severely undermines Google's credibility for supporting rigorous research on AI ethics and algorithmic auditing," she said.

"We owe her a debt of gratitude for advancing not just the field of artificial intelligence, but for advancing equality with humility and grace."

What happened?

Dr Gebru alleges that as she was preparing to go on leave, she was called to a meeting about a research paper she had co-written.

She said she was ordered to retract the research paper and that Google was not prepared to engage in a discussion about the matter.

Following the meeting, she sent an email to an internal group called "Brain Women and Allies", criticising the decision. A copy of the email has been published by Platformer.

"You are not worth having any conversations about this, since you are not someone whose humanity... is acknowledged or valued in this company," she said in the email.

"Stop writing your documents because it doesn't make a difference."

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Dr Gebru had emailed her management laying out some key conditions for removing her name from the paper, and if they were not met, she would "work on a last date" for her employment.

According to Dr Gebru, Google replied: "We respect your decision to leave Google... and we are accepting your resignation.

"However, we believe the end of your employment should happen faster than your email reflects because certain aspects of the email you sent last night to non-management employees in the brain group reflect behaviour that is inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager."

Dr Gebru denied she had resigned, tweeting that she had been fired by Jeff Dean, a senior manager at Google dealing with AI Research.

"I guess [management] decided for me", she said.

The research paper remains unpublished, but MIT Technology Review has summarised its contents, saying it focused on the risks of training AI by drawing on huge archives of text data.

What has the reaction been?

Since her dismissal, the open letter of support has attracted nearly 2,000 signatories, both from within Google and the wider industry.

News of her dismissal came on the same day that a US labour agency accused Google of illegally firing staff for their involvement in union activity.

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Google staff who worked with Dr Gebru have applauded her academic contributions and her work as a manager.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

"I cannot count the number of times Timnit Gebru has encouraged us, spoken out for us, defended us and stuck her neck out for us," tweeted Deb Raji, an AI researcher.

"She has made real sacrifices for the Black community. Now it's time to stand with her!"

What does Google say?

In an email, Mr Dean said there had been "a lot of speculation and misunderstanding" about the firing.

He alleged that Dr Gebru's paper was submitted a day before its deadline, which was not enough time for Google's review process. He also said the paper ignored much relevant research.

"Timnit responded with an email requiring that a number of conditions be met in order for her to continue working at Google, including revealing the identities of every person who [we] had spoken to and consulted as part of the review of the paper and the exact feedback.

"Timnit wrote that if we didn't meet these demands, she would leave Google and work on an end date. We accept and respect her decision to resign from Google," Mr Dean wrote.

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