Google AI researcher's exit sparks ethics, bias concerns

FILE - This Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, file photo shows Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Prominent artificial intelligence scholar Timnit Gebru helped improve Google's public image as a company that elevates Black computer scientists and questions harmful uses of AI technology. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
FILE - This Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, file photo shows Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Prominent artificial intelligence scholar Timnit Gebru helped improve Google's public image as a company that elevates Black computer scientists and questions harmful uses of AI technology. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File) (Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Prominent artificial intelligence scholar Timnit Gebru helped improve Google's public image as a company that elevates Black computer scientists and questions harmful uses of AI technology.

But internally, Gebru, a leader in the field of AI ethics, was not shy about voicing doubts about those commitments — until she was pushed out of the company this week in a dispute over a research paper examining the societal dangers of an emerging branch of AI.

Gebru announced on Twitter she was fired. Google told employees she resigned. More than 1,200 Google employees have signed on to an open letter calling the incident “unprecedented research censorship” and faulting the company for racism and defensiveness.

The furor over Gebru’s abrupt departure is the latest incident raising questions about whether Google has strayed so far away from its original “Don’t Be Evil” motto that the company now routinely ousts employees who dare to challenge management. The exit of Gebru, who is Black, also raised further doubts about diversity and inclusion at a company where Black women account for just 1.6% of the workforce.

And it's exposed concerns beyond Google about whether showy efforts at ethical AI — ranging from a White House executive order this week to ethics review teams set up throughout the tech industry — are of little use when their conclusions might threaten profits or national interests.

Gebru has been a star in the AI ethics world who spent her early tech career working on Apple products and got her doctorate studying computer vision at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

She's co-founder of the group Black in AI, which promotes Black employment and leadership in the field. She's known for a landmark 2018 study that found racial and gender bias in facial recognition software.

Gebru had recently been working on a paper examining the risks of developing computer systems that analyze huge databases of human language and use that to create their own human-like text. The paper, a copy of which was shown to The Associated Press, mentions Google's own new technology, used in its search business, as well as those developed by others.