Thousands petition Google for more answers on departed researcher

Key Points
  • More than 2,000 Google employees and industry supporters are petitioning Google for answers on its firing of renown researcher Timnit Gebru.
  • Gebru, who claims she was terminated for conditional disagreements regarding one of her research papers, has been vocally critical of the company's treatment of research, diversity and inclusion efforts, and treatment of black employees.
  • Employees promptly took to Twitter, saying her managers' explanations didn't line up with their experiences.
AI Research Scientist Timnit Gebru.
Kimberly White | Getty Images

Employees from Google and other organizations are asking Google for answers about how it handled the departure of renown researcher Timnit Gebru in an online petition that had more than 2,000 signatures as of Friday afternoon.

Gebru, a well-known artificial intelligence researcher, technical co-lead of Google's "Ethical AI" team and vocal critic of tech companies' treatment of Black workers, tweeted Wednesday night that her corporate account had been abruptly shut off after she discussed potentially resigning over a disagreement about a research paper that scrutinized bias in artificial intelligence, which the company asked her to retract.  

The company's AI chief, Jeff Dean, who had sung her praises publicly over the last several months, later told employees that he pulled the research paper because Gebru didn't follow protocol for the paper and that it "ignored too much relevant research." He fast-tracked her resignation because of an email she sent to an employee resource group, "Women and Allies," that criticized the company's leadership approach to research, as well as its diversity and inclusion efforts.

Employees promptly took to Twitter, saying Dean's explanations didn't line up with their experiences with research at Google and other organizations.

In the online petition titled "Standing with Dr. Timnit Gebru," which has signatures of more than 1,078 Google employees and 1,413 academic, industry, and civil society personnel, demands clarification on what led to Gebru's termination and research paper handling. 

The organized petition shows Google's vocal workforce speaking out again about the company's handling of ethics and treatment of Black employees amid the company's dismal progress in diversity and inclusion efforts. Employees, have requested clarity, specificity and transparency when it comes to diversity efforts after the company made bold commitments in 2020. It also comes on the heels of a National Labor Board complaint filed this week, alleging the company retaliated against employees voicing their concerns about work conditions.

"Instead of being embraced by Google as an exceptionally talented and prolific contributor, Dr. Gebru has faced defensiveness, racism, gaslighting, research censorship, and now a retaliatory firing," the petition states.

The petition calls for Jeff Dean, Google Senior Fellow and Senior Vice-President of Research and Megan Kacholia, Vice-President of Engineering for the Google Brain organization, to explain to the public and to Google's Ethical AI team to explain the process by which Gebru's paper was "unilaterally rejected by leadership." It also asks for the company to provide clear guidelines on "how research will be reviewed and how research integrity will be respected."

"We call on Google Research to strengthen its commitment to research integrity and to unequivocally commit to supporting research that honors the commitments made in Google's AI Principles," the petition states. "Until December 2, Dr. Gebru was one of very few Black women Research Scientists at the company, which boasts a dismal 1.6% Black employees overall."

Signatures include other renowned researchers from universities including Stanford, Harvard, and MIT as well as leaders from other tech companies including product Inclusion specialists, scientists and researchers from Netflix, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft.

"This is absolutely infuriating," tweeted President & Director-Counsel of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Sherrilyn Ifill. "I am a huge fan and supporter of the work and uncompromising voice of @timnitGebru. I have learned so much from her about AI bias. What a disaster."

Google declined to comment on the petition and Gebru's departure, but pointed to a statement from Dean that touches on the company's review process for academic papers.

"Our aim is to rival peer-reviewed journals in terms of the rigor and thoughtfulness in how we review research before publication," Dean's statement read in part. "We're actively working on improving our paper review processes, because we know that too many checks and balances can become cumbersome.  We will always prioritize ensuring our research is responsible and high-quality, but we're working to make the process as streamlined as we can so it's more of a pleasure doing research here."

Watch Now: Renowned AI researcher says Google abruptly fired her, spurring industrywide criticism

Renowned AI researcher says Google abruptly fired her, spurring industrywide criticism
Renowned AI researcher says Google abruptly fired her, spurring industrywide criticism