“I started crying”: Inside Timnit Gebru’s last days at Google | MIT Technology Review
By now, we’ve all heard some version of the story. On December 2, after a protracted disagreement over the release of a research paper, Google forced out its ethical AI co-lead, Timnit Gebru. The paper was on the risks of large language models, AI models trained on staggering amounts of text data, which are a line of research core to Google’s business. Gebru, a leading voice in AI ethics, was one of the only Black women at Google Research.
The move has since sparked a debate about growing corporate influence over AI, the long-standing lack of diversity in tech, and what it means to do meaningful AI ethics research. As of December 15, over 2,600 Google employees and 4,300 others in academia, industry, and civil society had signed a petition denouncing the dismissal of Gebru, calling it “unprecedented research censorship” and “an act of retaliation.”
The company’s star ethics researcher highlighted the risks of large language models, which are key to Google’s business.
Gebru is known for foundational work in revealing AI discrimination, developing methods for documenting and auditing AI models, and advocating for greater diversity in research. In 2016, she cofounded the nonprofit Black in AI, which has become a central resource for civil rights activists, labor organizers, and leading AI ethics researchers, cultivating and highlighting Black AI research talent.
Then in that document, I wrote that this has been extremely disrespectful to the Ethical AI team, and there needs to be a conversation, not just with Jeff and our team, and Megan and our team, but the whole of Research about respect for researchers and how to have these kinds of discussions. Nope. No engagement with that whatsoever.
I cried, by the way. When I had that first meeting, which was Thursday before Thanksgiving, a day before I was going to go on vacation—when Megan told us that you have to retract this paper, I started crying. I was so upset because I said, I’m so tired of constant fighting here. I thought that if I just ignored all of this DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] hypocrisy and other stuff, and I just focused on my work, then at least I could get my work done. And now you’re coming for my work. So I literally started crying.
You’ve mentioned that this is not just about you; it’s not just about Google. It’s a confluence of so many different issues. What does this particular experience say about tech companies’ influence on AI in general, and their capacity to actually do meaningful work in AI ethics?
You know, there were a number of people comparing Big Tech and Big Tobacco, and how they were censoring research even though they knew the issues for a while. I push back on the academia-versus-tech dichotomy, because they both have the same sort of very racist and sexist paradigm. The paradigm that you learn and take to Google or wherever starts in academia. And people move. They go to industry and then they go back to academia, or vice versa. They’re all friends; they are all going to the same conferences.
I don’t think the lesson is that there should be no AI ethics research in tech companies, but I think the lesson is that a) there needs to be a lot more independent research. We need to have more choices than just DARPA [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] versus corporations. And b) there needs to be oversight of tech companies, obviously. At this point I just don’t understand how we can continue to think that they’re gonna self-regulate on DEI or ethics or whatever it is. They haven’t been doing the right thing, and they’re not going to do the right thing.
I think academic institutions and conferences need to rethink their relationships with big corporations and the amount of money they’re taking from them. Some people were even wondering, for instance, if some of these conferences should have a “no censorship” code of conduct or something like that. So I think that there is a lot that these conferences and academic institutions can do. There’s too much of an imbalance of power right now.