Two more AI ethics researchers follow Timnit Gebru out of Google

One of the departing employees said she was "tired" of working at the tech giant.

Andrew Kelly / reuters

Google has two lost prominent members of its Ethical AI research group, reports Bloomberg. On Wednesday, researcher Alex Hanna and software engineer Dylan Baker left the company to join Timnit Gebru’s Distributed AI Research Institute. Gebru founded the nonprofit in December following her controversial exit from the tech giant in 2020.

Up until the end of that year, Gebru was one of the co-leads of Google’s Ethical AI research group. After publishing a paper the company said didn’t meet its bar for publication, Gebru claims Google fired her. The company, however, has maintained she resigned. In February 2021, several employees left the unit in protest of Google’s handling of the situation. Later that same month, the company fired Margaret Mitchell, the other co-lead of the Ethical AI research group. Hanna and Baker told Bloomberg the dismissals weighed heavily on them, and that they wanted to work with Gebru again.

“I am quitting because I’m tired,” Hanna wrote on Medium after announcing her departure from the company. The post is in many ways a call to action. “In a word, tech has a whiteness problem. Google is not just a tech organization. Google is a white tech organization,” Hanna writes. “More specifically, tech organizations are committed to defending whiteness through the ‘interrelated practices, processes, actions and meanings,’ the techniques of reproducing the organization. In this case, that means defending their policies of recruitment, hierarchization, and monetization.”

The post also touches on the paper at the center of Gebru’s dismissal from the company. Hanna says the claim Jeff Dean, the head of Google’s AI division, made about the robustness of the company’s publishing process was “laughable.” She points to analysis the group Google Walkout for Real Change published in 2020. “Google management remained silent when an article on the Google Walkout page pointed out that there were many counterexamples, like how nearly half of papers in the system were approved within a day or less of the deadline,” Hanna said.

Hanna and Baker told Bloomberg they also believe Google has become less willing to listen to employees in recent years. They specifically pointed to the company’s pursuit of potential contracts from the Pentagon over the past and the very public objections of its workers.

“We appreciate Alex and Dylan’s contributions — our research on responsible AI is incredibly important, and we’re continuing to expand our work in this area in keeping with our AI Principles," A Google spokesperson told Engadget. "We’re also committed to building a company where people of different views, backgrounds and experiences can do their best work and show up for one another.”