back to article I'm fired: Google AI in meltdown as ethics unit co-lead forced out just weeks after coworker ousted

Google has finished its probe into the controversial ousting of Timnit Gebru, co-leader of its Ethical AI unit. The ad giant promised to implement new procedures around “potentially sensitive employee exits,” though it did not make its findings public. Gebru said she was fired for warning coworkers in an internal memo that, …

  1. Tom 38 Silver badge

    Point 1: Google fucked up here, big time

    Point 2: Don't ever email your employer with "...here are the conditions. If you can meet them great I’ll take my name off this paper, if not then I can work on a last date." - that's offering to resign. Make them fire you.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Are you basing that on your experience as a lawyer? In which jurisdiction? Can you provide similar examples?

      Where I live (not the USA, thankfully), it's not a resignation letter by any stretch of the imagination.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        it's not a resignation letter by any stretch of the imagination.

        No, but it is a resignation offer: "change this, or I'll leave". Not really surprising if the response is "No. Sorry to see you go". Leaves the sender with little choice but to leave, or eat humble pie & agree to stay anyway, with very well-burned boats behind them.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        There was a case in the UK many years ago that I remembere reading about where a Nurse thought that a collegaue wanted to get rid of her so was making her job as difficult as possible. The Nurse responded by writing a letter to HR to make a complaint about the way she was being treated - however, she added an extra comma into her statement that "xxx is making my job a misery, so I resign". The HR dept interpreted this as a resignation letter and ended her job. She responded saying that she hadn't resigned and her letter had been misinterpreted and the case went all the way to an industrial tribunal which ruled in favour of the HR dept on the basis that the letter was (gramatically) a resignation and that was how it was legally to be interpreted whatever the writers intentions had been.

    2. ST Silver badge

      > Point 2: Don't ever email your employer with "...here are the conditions.

      1. Not really. Not in the USA.

      2. You don't know the details of the email, as it has not been made public.

      3. Unless you work for Google HR, in which case I know why you're here.

      Actually, retaliating against an employee who asked their employer for better workplace conditions is grounds for filing a formal complaint with the NLRB.

      Google is the company that was trying to prevent its employees from discussing compensation with their colleagues. That is blatantly illegal as well.

      It looks like Google wants to catch-up and soon surpass Amazon in terms of workplace toxicity.

      1. Tom 38 Silver badge

        You don't know the details of the email, as it has not been made public.

        That's right, I don't. What I put in quotes was Timnit's own description of the email. Am I wrong to trust her description?

        IANAL, but don't ever offer to resign unless you want to resign.

    3. lordsandwich71
      Coat

      No, I don't believe Google fucked up. It's not a good idea to give the company you work for ultimatums.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        It's given me a couple of good pay rises, though.

        But you need to be sure of your standing.

  2. Howard Sway

    Responsible AI, a new unit that oversees Ethical AI

    Q. What's the difference between responsible and ethical?

    A. Behave abominably, and you're responsible, but you ain't ethical.

    This has turned into a complete farce, due to anybody honestly concerned about ethics coming up against the corporate wrath of an unethical company.

    1. Warm Braw Silver badge

      Re: Responsible AI, a new unit that oversees Ethical AI

      It's hard enough doing "ethical" research at a university - you'd hope that someone working in that field would not be so naive as to be blind to the potential hazard of being on the payroll of a company with a vested interest.

      Nothing from Google is truly 'free' and that includes speech.

    2. steelpillow Silver badge
      Unhappy

      Re: Responsible AI, a new unit that oversees Ethical AI

      A. With great power come great ethics - not?

    3. Cederic Silver badge

      Re: Responsible AI, a new unit that oversees Ethical AI

      Copying company materials onto unsecured and unauthorised networks and devices is a breach of professional ethics. Including HR information (as alleged) makes instantly sackable even when the intent is good and in the company's interests.

      1. yetanotheraoc

        Re: Responsible AI, a new unit that oversees Ethical AI

        "Copying company materials onto unsecured and unauthorised networks and devices is a breach of professional ethics. Including HR information (as alleged) makes instantly sackable even when the intent is good and in the company's interests."

        It's certainly a breach of corporate policy. Whether it's a breach of ethics depends on the (ex)employee's motive for doing it. If doing it for revenge or profit, it's unethical. If doing it as a whistleblower, it's ethical. Either way, it's against corporate interests, so don't get caught. In the first case, don't get caught *ever*. In the second case, don't get caught until the docs are securely in the lawyers hands.

    4. Juillen 1

      Re: Responsible AI, a new unit that oversees Ethical AI

      From time working on Clinical Ethics boards, some of the stuff that the pair had been doing would definitely not have passed muster as "Ethical". Ideological crusades rarely are.

      There was a whole fanatical wave of "It's all against minorities, it's only because she's a woman, it's an attack against women and minorities" in this last event, well past the time that Google stated that the exfiltration of data contained sensitive information on other people (this is ethically a BIG no-no, and would get anyone in an ethically sensitive role fired post haste).

      Behaving ethically is a full time task. It's damnably hard to meet standards all the time every time, especially when you have a desire to do something else, but if you can't be trusted to maintain at least a reasonable standard (don't go playing with other people's sensitive data unless it's what you're doing as part of your job, with an acknowledged 'need to know', and protecting it with everything you can), then I'd probably be of the opinion that you should in no way be responsible for writing ethical policy.

  3. Starace
    Devil

    Naive

    Googlers think they work in an environmental where their specialness will be tolerated.

    They're then shocked to find our they work for a giant corporate multinational that doesn't like people biting the hand that feeds them, or people making demands, or people search their networks for information.

    They're worker drones, and whatever gender, colour or whatever they are Google *doesn't care*. They don't discriminate but they don't tolerate either.

    I think some people want a nice free startup/academic environment and they're in totally the wrong place for that.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Naive

      "the hand that feeds them"

      A company doesn't exist independently of its employees, unless it's a really dodgy affair in the Caymans.

      It doesn't "feed" employees. A salary is earned in exchange of the work that makes the company, you know, run.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Naive

        A company doesn't need specific employees, they need bums on seats with the right skills and these days it's a lot easier to replace someone who's indicated they want to leave than risk them staying, putting up with their BS and potentially having lots of costly "leaks".

        She threatened the company, it responded. Before you say she didn't threaten "Do this or I do this" is a threat especially when there is researched etc on the line.

  4. steelpillow Silver badge
    Mushroom

    That's not very Googly

    Did somebody mention transparency?

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    If you want to find 'Ethics' in Google ...

    ... search Google Maps [having first taken your false teeth out].

    1. TimMaher Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: If you want to find 'Ethics' in Google ...

      Isn’t that where SCALEMoDL comes from?

      Sounds a bit chav to me.

      Although, there are some who insist that “chav” comes from ‘Sarf ‘ of the estuary.

      Mine’s the one with the Burberry scarf in the pocket.

    2. lnLog

      Re: If you want to find 'Ethics' in Google ...

      Google Maps can't find google ethics

      Make sure your search is spelled correctly. Try adding a city, state, or zip code.

      Try Google Search instead

      Should this place be on Google Maps?

      Add a missing place

      1. yetanotheraoc

        Re: If you want to find 'Ethics' in Google ...

        Hah, nice try, when I search Google Maps for "google ethics", I get results.

        * CNBC - Their website mentions (bold) google's ethical (/bold).

        * New York University Department of Philosophy

        * etc.

  6. Phones Sheridan

    Corporate speak

    "I understand we could have and should have handled this situation with more sensitivity. And for that, I am sorry."

    Translation: "Oops, you were not supposed to hear about this"

    "enact new procedures around potentially sensitive employee exits."

    Translation: "Now we'll force NDAs on everyone to top it happening again"

  7. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    If you need to ask, you aint suited and booted and properly rooted for working in AI

    The ad giant promised to implement new procedures around “potentially sensitive employee exits,” though it did not make its findings public

    Disclosing proprietary intellectual property secrets for free is no way to make and keep friends secure and safe from harm, and especially so whenever working with potentially sensitive information for advancing intelligence .... and all variations and permutations on that AI theme.

    It is not at all surprising its finding and promises to implement new procedures are not public general knowledge.

  8. HildyJ Silver badge
    Facepalm

    Gebru vs. Mitchell

    The Gebru situation seems bad, really bad, for Google.

    OTOH, the Mitchell situation seems reasonable. Their automated network security system flagged her for shipping (I can't say exfiltrating with a straight face) mass quantities of data off site which is something any company would act on.

    In both though, Google's response was so tone deaf that it is unbelievable.

    1. Juillen 1

      Re: Gebru vs. Mitchell

      Process is supposed to be "tone deaf". It takes a situation, works out if things fit criteria, then moves on with taking action.

      Both Gebru and Mitchell had done enough to trigger action. Huge companies can't afford to spend endless sums on going through someone's life story, making excuses for them, seeing what the public think of it (when they really don't know, and can't ever truly understand the frame of reference) and so on.

      Most people either go to court and claim unfair dismissal if they really believe they've been mistreated, or they quietly go looking for the next job.

      These two have both claimed it's because of <insert woke trigger phrase here> and put it out into the media. Which is incredibly harmful to future employability. Unless of course that it's in an ideologically driven group and the ideology is of more importance than getting on with the job and doing impartial work.

      I suspect they both thought of Google as an ideologically malleable entity that they could configure from their roles such that it bowed to their agenda as a priority over getting actual work done that was needed in their remit. They weren't correct.

      1. yetanotheraoc

        Re: Gebru vs. Mitchell

        "I suspect they both thought of Google as an ideologically malleable entity that they could configure from their roles such that it bowed to their agenda as a priority over getting actual work done that was needed in their remit."

        I suspect instead they thought their role would be somewhat related to their job description(s) in the performance evaluation system. I doubt in the hiring interview Google told them "we need you as a front to deflect criticism we're getting that our AI research is unethical, just tell everyone we're great no matter what you actually see". Creating a new Responsible level to oversee the Ethical level clearly shows the Ethicists have gotten out hand. What's wrong with employees these days, can't they read between the lines?

  9. mevets

    Stimulating, I think not..

    `The Stimulating Collaborative Advances Leveraging Expertise in the Mathematical and Scientific Foundations of Deep Learning`. I scarcely have to close my eyes to imagine this coming out of Borat's mouth. Could they not spare $50 of the $15m for a grade school student to come up with something a little less ham-fisted? Or, maybe a program to generate one?

  10. TheMeerkat Bronze badge

    I am not fun of Google, but in this case I am on their side.

    It should be a lesson for them not to flirt with woke subjects.

  11. Claverhouse Silver badge
    Meh

    Without Merit

    Google is the Devil, but...

    Apart from not understanding whatever their ludicrous jobs were for --- a research paper on the negative environmental and social effects of massive, power-hungry, biased language-processing neural networks like the ones used by Google. --- nor why such companies need ethics departments. The decline of religion, regardless of whether one is a believer, aside, most people will know the correct action usually [ though hopefully not pandering to temporary moral pronunciation, which does not deal with thieving or cruelties as is traditional in moral codes, but with whatever the speaker wants to be ] and it is fairly easy for a company to stick to the straight and narrow *. Therefore the existence of these moral pundits is in itself otiose. However, if they misbehave --- or test the resignation limits --- the company is entirely within its rights to drop them.

    .

    * None of which implies the functions of the company, which is after all, advertising, mostly, has any moral merit; but their actions and interpersonal relations within that ambit can be moral.

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