Last night, Google abruptly fired Timnit Gebru, an AI ethicist who has gained immense respect around the world for her work uncovering racial bias in algorithms and promoting women and people of color in the field.
Gebru, who was the co-lead of Google’s ethical AI team, announced her firing in a series of tweets on Wednesday. The news was immediately met with outrage by fellow ethicists, her former co-workers, and many influential AI researchers.
“To be bold, to be honest, to know your worth, to speak up for others, to do the thankless work, to pioneer the way, to suffer no fools, to be all they could only wish to be, wrapped in black womanhood is an affront to those who would rather see us cower than own our power,” tweeted Joy Buolamwini, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League and co-author with Gebru of a landmark paper that revealed facial recognition’s bias problem.
Meredith Whittaker, a former Google employee who founded the AI Now Institute wrote, “You can't take ally credit for supporting Black In AI then turn around and retaliate against [one of the only] Black woman Research Scientist[s] at Google.”
In her announcement of her departure, Gebru quoted an email she received from one of her superiors that suggests the company’s decision was related to several requests she had made of management and a message she sent to an internal Google group called Brain Women and Allies.
“Thanks for making your conditions clear. We cannot agree to #1 and #2 as you are requesting. We respect your decision to leave Google as a result, and we are accepting your resignation,” the email read, according to Gebru’s tweets. “However, we believe the end of your employment should happen faster than your email reflects because certain aspects of the email you sent last night to non-management employees in the brain group reflect behavior that is inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager. As a result, we are accepting your resignation immediately, effective today.”
In a separate series of tweets from late November, Gebru had expressed frustration with her white, male Google superiors for apparently shutting down research within the company.
Google employees who worked with Gebru have sided with her and expressed their outrage, albeit some in more careful tones than those outside the company.
“Anyway what is super clear is that I've been more critical of Google leadership both internally and externally than @timnitGebru ever has been and yet I'm still employed, so take that into account when deciding whether Google treats minorities the same way it treats cis white men,” tweeted Matthew Garret, a security engineer at Google.
Members of Google’s AI ethics team, meanwhile, described Gebru as one of the best, most supportive managers they had worked with.
Gebru’s firing came the same day the National Labor Relations Board accused Google of spying on employees before firing two workers in 2019 for organizing.
One fired worker, Laurence Berland, had been organizing workers to protest Google working with IRI Consultants, an anti-union firm, and was let go after looking at other employees' calendars. Google claimed this violated internal policies, but the NLRB found that such restrictions were illegal.
“Google’s hiring of IRI is an unambiguous declaration that management will no longer tolerate worker organizing," Berland said in a statement on Wednesday. "Management and their union busting cronies wanted to send that message, and the NLRB is now sending their own message: worker organizing is protected by law."
Kathryn Spiers, the other fired worker, was fired after creating a pop-up notification for any Google employee that visited the IRI Consultants website. The notification reminded workers that "Googlers had the right to participate in protected concerted activities.” Google alleged that this was done by violating security policies, but the NLRB found Google illegally fired her.
“This week the NLRB issued a complaint on my behalf. They found that I was illegally terminated for trying to help my colleagues,” Spiers said. “Colleagues and strangers believe I abused my role because of lies told by Google management while they were retaliating against me. The NLRB can order Google to reinstate me, but it cannot reverse the harm done to my credibility.”
Google did not immediately respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.