Because its products and services permeate our lives, Google has tremendous power. If the company cannot even pretend to care about its internal “Ethical AI” co-leader, how much do you think they care about the rest of us?
Dr. Timnit Gebru and I do not know each other. I have never met her and she probably is not even aware I exist. And yet, she is very important in my life. Not only in my life, but in your life, too. Indeed, I believe Dr. Gebru is extremely significant for everyone and I will explain why below.
Before that, let me recap briefly what happened last week that inspired me to write this, in case you have never heard of Dr. Gebru before. (It is very well possible that you have not — as I may not have if I weren’t researching the social aspects of algorithmic systems for a living.) However, you certainly know Dr. Gebru’s former employer: Google. You may even have heard of her area of work: at Google, Dr. Gebru used to be the co-lead of the Ethical AI team. And maybe, just maybe, you have even heard of her ground-breaking research (with Joy Buolamwini) demonstrating how face recognition algorithms are most accurate for faces that are male and caucasian and perform terribly for people of color, especially women. [Dr. Gebru’s record goes far beyond this one example I picked. Yet it is the one I have heard and seen mentioned most frequently as the go-to example in industry, policy and public discussions of “algorithms are not neutral”.]
On the morning of December 3, I checked my twitter feed and discovered Timnit Gebru’s tweet, published a few hours prior, announcing her discovery that Google had fired her. She wrote that her employment had been terminated immediately with reference to an email to an internal mailing list.
The news spread like a wild fire and, within hours, disputes over details and definitions broke out. What exactly did her email to the mailing list say? Was this the real reason she was fired by Google? Was she actually fired or did she resign? And even if she was fired: did she deserve to be fired? But here’s the thing: although some of the answers to these questions are informative (and even the questions themselves are very telling!), I will not discuss internal e-mails and information about individual people at Google here. For the point I am trying to make, none of them really matter.
Google is still Continue reading