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Google’s ethical AI researchers complained of harassment long before Timnit Gebru’s firing

Google’s ethical AI researchers complained of harassment long before Timnit Gebru’s firing


Employees reported allegations of gender discrimination and sexual harassment, according to Bloomberg

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Google’s AI leadership came under fire in December when star ethics researcher Timnit Gebru was abruptly fired while working on a paper about the dangers of large language models. Now, new reporting from Bloomberg suggests the turmoil began long before her termination — and includes allegations of bias and sexual harassment.

Shortly after Gebru arrived at Google in 2018, she informed her boss that a colleague had been accused of sexual harassment at another organization. Katherine Heller, a Google researcher, reported the same incident, which included allegations of inappropriate touching. Google immediately opened an investigation into the man’s behavior. Bloomberg did not name the man accused of harassment, and The Verge does not know his identity.

The allegations coincided with an even more explosive story. Andy Rubin, the “father of Android” had received a $90 million exit package despite being credibly accused of sexual misconduct. The news sparked outrage at Google, and 20,000 employees walked out of work to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment.

Gebru and Margaret Mitchell, co-lead of the ethical AI team, went to AI chief Jeff Dean with a “litany of concerns,” according to Bloomberg. They told Dean about the colleague who’d been accused of harassment, and said there was a perceived pattern of women being excluded and undermined on the research team. Some were given lower roles than men, despite having better qualifications. Mitchell also said she’d been denied a promotion due to “nebulous complaints to HR about her personality.”

Dean was skeptical about the harassment allegations but said he would investigate, Bloomberg reports. He pushed back on the idea that there was a pattern of women on the research team getting lower-level positions than men.

After the meeting, Dean announced a new research project with the alleged harasser at the helm. Nine months later, the man was fired for “leadership issues,” according to Bloomberg. He’d been accused of misconduct at Google, although the investigation was still ongoing.

After the man was fired, he threatened to sue Google. The legal team told employees who’d spoken out about his conduct that they might hear from the man’s lawyers. The company was “vague” about whether it would defend the whistleblowers, Bloomberg reports.

The harassment allegation was not an isolated incident. Gebru and her co-workers reported additional claims of inappropriate behavior and bullying after the initial accusation.

In a statement emailed to The Verge, a Google spokesperson said: “We investigate any allegations and take firm action against employees who violate our clear workplace policies.”

Gebru said there were also ongoing issues with getting Google to respect the ethical AI team’s work. When she tried to look into a dataset released by Google’s self-driving car company Waymo, the project became mired in “legal haggling.” Gebru wanted to explore how skin tone impacted Waymo’s pedestrian-detection technology. “Waymo employees peppered the team with inquiries, including why they were interested in skin color and what they were planning to do with the results,” according to the Bloomberg article.

After Gebru went public about her firing, she received an onslaught of harassment from people who claimed that she was trying to get attention and play the victim. The latest news further validates her response that the issues she raised were part of a pattern of alleged bias on the research team.

Update April 21st, 6:05PM ET: Article updated with statement from Google.