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Google reportedly promises change to research team after high-profile firings


Google, by night.
Enlarge / Google, by night.

Google is reportedly promising that it will change its research review procedures this year in its AI division in an apparent bid to restore employee confidence in the wake of two high-profile firings of prominent women from the division.

Reuters obtained a recording from an internal meeting this month in which Google Research executives promised to better address “sensitive topics” and research critical of Google’s own business operations.

By the end of the second quarter, the approvals process for research papers will be more smooth and consistent, division Chief Operating Officer Maggie Johnson reportedly told employees in the meeting. Research teams will have access to a questionnaire that allows them to assess their projects for risk and navigate review, and Johnson predicted that a majority of papers would not require additional vetting by Google.

Johnson also said the division is bringing in a third-party firm to help it conduct a racial-equity impact assessment, Reuters reports, and she expects the assessment’s recommendations “to be pretty hard.”

Departures

Google landed in hot water in December over its abrupt firing of Timnit Gebru, a widely respected researcher who had been co-head of Google’s AI ethics team. Gebru co-authored a research paper that looked at the potential risks for bias in large-scale natural language modeling. The paper analyzed not only the social risks of such work—including unintentionally perpetuating racism and bias—but also some physical risks, such as increased energy usage that could exacerbate the climate crisis.

People above Gebru in the chain at Google blocked her from publishing the paper, instead asking her to retract it or remove her name. She declined, and she sent an internal email to the team describing the decision as part of a pervasive attitude inside Google to silence marginalized voices, including women and people of color. (Gebru is Black.)

Co-author Emily Bender told the Financial Times at the time, “From the outside, it looks like someone at Google decided this was harmful to their interests.” Gebru was gone from the company within days.

Gebru’s firing was contentious among Google employees from the moment it happened. Many of the workers who launched a union drive inside the company in January cited its handling of Gebru and her firing as a last straw.

On top of that, Google last week abruptly fired Margaret Mitchell, who jointly led the ethics team with Gebru for about two years. Mitchell was also a co-author with Gebru on the paper that led to Gebru’s firing, and she published an open letter in support of Gebru at the time.

The paper (PDF) that prompted the departures has since been made public with both Gebru and “Shmargaret Shmitchell” listed among the authors.



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