By John P. Desmond, Editor, AI Trends
Google ignited a firestorm around its ethics program last week when it let go a prominent AI ethicist, Timnit Gebru, apparently over contents of an email where she expressed her feelings, following a request by Google that a paper on large language models she had submitted to an industry conference be withdrawn.
Gebru had sent an email saying she felt “constantly dehumanized” at the company, according to an account in The Washington Post. She had been the co-leader of Google’s Ethical AI Team, where she was researching the fairness and risks associated with Google’s technology.
Of Ethiopian descent, Gebru was a rarity in the Silicon Valley culture known for its racial homogeneity. She became known in a senior role at Google for critically examining bias in the technology and its repercussions. She co-founded the Blacks in AI advocacy group that has pushed for more Black roles in AI development and research.
Gebru’s team had been researching large language models, such as OpenAI’s GPT-3 system, which has been used to generate seemingly human-created news reports, poems and computer code. Google may be researching consumer-facing products that would generate convincing passages of text difficult to distinguish from human writing, the Post reported.
In an interview in Bloomberg, Gebru said she was asked to remove the names of other Google employees from the paper, which was to be submitted to the ACM Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency, a conference Gebru co-founded to be held in March.
Google managers told Gebru the paper had to go through an approval process, and not enough time was allowed for the review. Gebru called it a “fundamental silencing.”
Thousands Sign Petition Supporting Gebru
Google protest group Google Walkout For Real Change, according to the Bloomberg account, posted a petition in support of Gebru on Medium, which had been initially signed by more than 400 employees of the company and more than 500 from academic and industry figures. Later it was signed by 2,278 Google employees and 3,114 industry allies.
The paper, according to Bloomberg, called out the dangers of using large language models to train algorithms that could, for example, write tweets, answer trivia and translate poetry. The models are essentially trained by analyzing language from the internet, which runs the risk that much of the world’s population would not be reflected in the training data.
This week Google CEO Sundar Pichai issued an apology to Gebru for the way the company handled her departure, according to an account in Axios. He said the company would look at all aspects of the situation.
“I’ve heard the reaction t
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