Google targets AI ethics lead Margaret Mitchell after firing Timnit Gebru

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Google has revoked Ethical AI team leader Margaret “Meg” Mitchell’s employee privileges and is currently investigating her activity, according to a statement provided by a company spokesperson. Should Google fire Mitchell, it will mean the company has effectively chosen to behead its own AI ethics team in under two months. In an interview with VentureBeat last month, former Google AI ethics co-lead Timnit Gebru said she had worked with Mitchell since 2018 to create one of the most diverse teams within Google Research.

Gebru tweeted Tuesday evening that Google’s move to freeze Mitchell’s employee account echoed the way hers was frozen before she was fired. When VentureBeat emailed Google to ask if Mitchell was still an employee, a spokesperson provided the following statement:

“Our security systems automatically lock an employee’s corporate account when they detect that the account is at risk of compromise due to credential problems or when an automated rule involving the handling of sensitive data has been triggered. In this instance, yesterday our systems detected that an account had exfiltrated thousands of files and shared them with multiple external accounts. We explained this to the employee earlier today. We are actively investigating this matter as part of standard procedures to gather additional details.”

Last month, Google fired Gebru following a demand by Google leadership that she rescind an AI research paper she coauthored about the negative consequences of large-scale language models, including their disproportionate impact on marginalized communities in the form of environmental impact and perpetuating stereotypes. Since then, Google released a trillion parameter language model and told its AI researchers to strike a positive tone on topics deemed “sensitive. Some members of the AI research community have pledged not to review the work of Google researchers at academic conferences in protest.

Mitchell has publicly criticized actions taken by Google leaders like AI chief Jeff Dean following the ousting of Gebru.

After Gebru was fired, April Curley, a queer Black woman who said she was fired by Google last fall, publicly recounted numerous negative experiences during her time as a recruiter of talent from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU).

On Tuesday, news emerged that Google CEO Sundar Pichai will meet with HBCU leaders following allegations of racism and sexism at the company by current and former employees.

Members of Congress interested in regulating AI and more than 2,000 Google employees have joined prominent figures in the AI research community in questioning Gebru’s dismissal. Members of Google’s AI ethics team called for her reinstatement in a series of demands sent to company leadership.

Organizers cited the way Google treated Gebru and the impact AI can have on society as motivators behind the establishment of the Alphabet Workers Union, which was formed earlier this month and as of a week ago counted 700 members. Gebru had previously endorsed the idea of a workers union as a way to help protect AI researchers from company retribution.

The incoming Biden administration has in recent days shared a commitment to diversity and to addressing algorithmic bias and other AI-driven harms to society through its science and technology policy platform. Experts in AI, law, and policy told VentureBeat last month that Google’s treatment of Gebru could impact a range of policy matters, including the passage of stronger whistleblower protections for tech workers and more public funding of independent AI research.

What happens to Mitchell will continue to shape attitudes toward corporate self-governance and speculation about the voracity of research produced with Big Tech funding. A research paper published in late 2020 compared the way Big Tech funds AI ethics research to Big Tobacco’s history of funding health research.

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