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Google fires second AI ethics researcher following internal investigation

Google fires second AI ethics researcher following internal investigation


Margaret Mitchell and Timnit Gebru, co-leads of the ethical AI team, have now both been terminated

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A Google logo sits at the center of ominous concentric circles
Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Google has fired Margaret Mitchell, co-lead of the ethical AI team, after she used an automated script to look through her emails in order to find evidence of discrimination against her coworker Timnit Gebru. The news was first reported by Axios.

Mitchell’s firing comes one day after Google announced a reorganization to its AI teams working on ethics and fairness. Marian Croak, a vice president in the engineering organization, is now leading “a new center of expertise on responsible AI within Google Research,” according to a blog post.

“These decisions were made behind our backs”

Mitchell joined Google in 2016 as a senior research scientist, according to her LinkedIn. Two years later, she helped start the ethical AI team alongside Gebru, a renowned researcher known for her work on bias in facial recognition technology.

In December 2020, Mitchell and Gebru were working on a paper about the dangers of large language processing models when Megan Kacholia, vice president of Google Brain, asked that the article be retracted. Gebru pushed back, saying the company needed to be more open about why the research wasn’t acceptable. Shortly afterwards, she was fired, though Google characterized her departure as a resignation.

After Gebru’s termination, Mitchell became openly critical of Google executives, including Google AI division head Jeff Dean and Google CEO Sundar Pichai. In January, she lost her corporate email access after Google began investigating her activity.

“After conducting a review of this manager’s conduct, we confirmed that there were multiple violations of our code of conduct, as well as of our security policies, which included the exfiltration of confidential business-sensitive documents and private data of other employees,” Google said in a statement to Axios about Mitchell’s firing.

On Friday, Google announced it was making changes to its research and diversity policies, following an investigation into Gebru’s termination. In an internal email, Jeff Dean apologized to staff for how Gebru’s departure was handled. “I heard and acknowledge what Dr. Gebru’s exit signified to female technologists, to those in the Black community and other underrepresented groups who are pursuing careers in tech, and to many who care deeply about Google’s responsible use of AI. It led some to question their place here, which I regret,” he said.

The ethical AI team has been in crisis since Gebru’s firing in December. After the reorganization announcement yesterday, senior researcher Alex Hanna wrote that the team was not aware of Croak’s appointment until the news broke publicly Wednesday night. “We were told to trust the process, trust in decision-makers like Marian Croak to look out for our best interests,” she said on Twitter. “But these decisions were made behind our backs.”