Google CEO Sundar Pichai addressed the controversial departure of AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru in an email to staff on Wednesday. “We need to accept responsibility for the fact that a prominent Black, female leader with immense talent left Google unhappily,” he wrote. News of the email was first published by Axios.
While Pichai did not say Gebru was fired as she and many others have claimed, he promised to review the steps that led to her leaving the company. “We need to assess the circumstances that led up to Dr. Gebru’s departure, examining where we could have improved and led a more respectful process,” he wrote.
He also apologized for how Gebru’s departure had “led some in our community to question their place at Google” and promised to consider “de-escalation strategies” for the future.
On Twitter, Gebru wrote the note was far from an apology.
Last week, Gebru tweeted that the company had abruptly fired her over an email she sent to the Brain Women and Allies listserv. In the email, she voiced frustration at the company trying to get her to retract a research paper on the risks of large language processing models.
The email led to a conversation between Gebru and higher-ups at Google Research. Gebru asked for certain conditions to be met in order for her to stay at the company, including knowing the details of who had asked for her paper to be retracted. One of the managers, Megan Kacholia, said the company couldn’t meet those conditions and preemptively accepted Gebru’s resignation.
Google’s head of AI, Jeff Dean, published a note explaining why Gebru’s paper hadn’t met the company’s standards. He said it had been submitted for review a day before the deadline when the company typically requires two weeks.
But Gebru’s own team pushed back on this assessment, writing in a blog post that the publication review policy was applied “unevenly and discriminatorily.” An internal analysis reviewed by The Verge showed that most publication approvals happen right before the deadline, and 41 percent happen after the deadline. “Numerous papers are approved for publication submission without meeting this ‘requirement,’” the team wrote.
On December 4th, the Google Walkout Medium account published a petition protesting Gebru’s firing. It has been signed by more than 2,300 Google employees and 3,700 industry allies to date.
Read Pichai’s full email here:
One of the things I’ve been most proud of this year is how Googlers from across the company came together to address our racial equity commitments. It’s hard, important work, and while we’re steadfast in our commitment to do better, we have a lot to learn and improve. An important piece of this is learning from our experiences like the departure of Dr. Timnit Gebru.
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. I want to say how sorry I am for that, and I accept the responsibility of working to restore your trust.
First - we need to assess the circumstances that led up to Dr. Gebru’s departure, examining where we could have improved and led a more respectful process. We will begin a review of what happened to identify all the points where we can learn — considering everything from de-escalation strategies to new processes we can put in place. Jeff and I have spoken and are fully committed to doing this. One of the best aspects of Google’s engineering culture is our sincere desire to understand where things go wrong and how we can improve.
Second - we need to accept responsibility for the fact that a prominent Black, female leader with immense talent left Google unhappily. This loss has had a ripple effect through some of our least represented communities, who saw themselves and some of their experiences reflected in Dr. Gebru’s. It was also keenly felt because Dr. Gebru is an expert in an important area of AI Ethics that we must continue to make progress on — progress that depends on our ability to ask ourselves challenging questions.
It’s incredibly important to me that our Black, women, and underrepresented Googlers know that we value you and you do belong at Google. And the burden of pushing us to do better should not fall on your shoulders. We started a conversation together earlier this year when we announced a broad set of racial equity commitments to take a fresh look at all of our systems from hiring and leveling, to promotion and retention, and to address the need for leadership accountability across all of these steps. The events of the last week are a painful but important reminder of the progress we still need to make.
This is a top priority for me and Google leads, and I want to recommit to translating the energy that we’ve seen this year into real change as we move forward into 2021 and beyond.