Future Tense

A Black A.I. Ethicist on Her Experiences at Google—and Her Controversial Departure

“They weren’t even treating me like a person.”

Timnit Gebru speaks and gesticulates. A water bottle can be seen in front of her.
Timnit Gebru speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco on Sept. 7, 2018. Kimberly White/Getty Images

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Earlier this fall, A.I. ethicist Timnit Gebru submitted a paper for consideration at an academic conference about predictive language models: on their environmental cost, and how they could learn racist and sexist language and also spread misinformation. Since she was working for Google, the company first wanted to review the paper—which Gebru wrote with several of her colleagues—and sign off on it. She was then told by senior managers that the paper didn’t meet Google’s publication bar, and that she should retract it or remove the names of Google employees. Gebru wanted more clarity on why they wanted it retracted and said that if Google couldn’t provide that information, she would resign. This kicked off a few days of wrangling and several intense emails—until a manager emailed Gebru’s boss, saying they had accepted her resignation. Gebru says Google fired her. Google says she resigned. Thousands of employees there have signed a petition on her behalf. The company’s CEO has had to answer questions about what happened. And Gebru is trying to figure out how she, one of the few Black women who studies ethics in A.I., ended up here.

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On a special episode of What Next: TBD that aired Tuesday, I spoke with Gebru about her experiences at Google and what actually led to her leaving the tech giant. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. (We reached out to Google to ask them about Gebru’s experience at the company and the circumstances of her departure but did not hear back by recording time.)

Lizzie O’Leary: I’d like to ask you why you went to work at Google in the first place.

Timnit Gebru: There were two things. I wanted to do a postdoc, but I wanted to go back home to the Bay Area. Another one was that Google specifically said that it wanted to start a Google Brain office in Accra, Ghana. It was supposed to be the first office in Africa. So I wanted to help with that.

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Has anyone to Google said to you, “This is where we had a problem” or “This thing you have put in the paper undercuts one of our products”?

The first conversation we had was: You have to retract the paper. Some of the product leaders believe that the flaws are too much. [Head of Google Research] Jeff Dean, in some email, told us that he had issues after a skim. And I was like, what do you think it overestimates? What kind of changes are you suggesting? So on Thanksgiving, I spent my whole day literally writing this amended document because they told me to retract it by Friday. And if I’m going to retract a paper, I at least want to understand what is going to happen after. Are we going to try to rewrite it or are you just trying to kill this line of work? What are you trying to do?

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Monday, I get an email that says, Can you confirm that you have retracted the paper or taken your name off the paper? And I’m like, are you kidding me? I wrote this whole thing, and you’re not even acknowledging that I wrote anything. That’s kind of how it went.

What really seems to have angered Google is an email you wrote to an internal group, Google Brain Women and Allies. There, you vented your frustration with what happened with the paper and what you saw as lip service to diversity.

I wrote a billion documents. I had a billion meetings. They just tire you out. They feel good about themselves for meeting with you. They don’t do anything. And then if you try to push them on it or tell them they’re doing something wrong, they tone-police you. This has happened to me so many times. There is nothing in place right now that incentivizes them to do something different. But as long as there’s no incentive for the leaders to do anything differently, this document is not going to help. Meetings are not going to help. Nothing’s going to help. So that’s why I was saying they should focus on leadership accountability.

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Do you think it was the email that got you dismissed, or the paper? 

Their reasoning to terminate me “immediately” was the email. And people in that email list are terrified to say anything because, mind you, this is an email list for women and their allies to discuss the problems in this department with respect to diversity, inclusion.

Where do you think the line is at Google between the intellectual and collegial freedom to have these kinds of discussions and the corporate culture not to say them too publicly or too loudly? 

I don’t even think this is corporate culture. We had a research all-hands after the George Floyd protests where people were crying, people were so emotional. We’re like pleading with leadership to do something different because we’re so exhausted. We outlined a bunch of principles—the No. 1 thing we said was psychological safety. If you don’t even have the psychological safety to discuss what you’re what you’re facing, then there’s no way to even move forward. There’s no way to fix your company’s culture.

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Speaking of leaders and accountability, what do you make of [Google CEO] Sundar Pichai’s statement where he says we need to accept responsibility for the fact that a prominent Black female leader with immense talent left Google unhappily?

It feels like there’s so much gymnastics there. They would have looked bad if they don’t make a statement. They still look bad after making that statement. They’re basically saying we apologize for the backlash because we’re not happy about the backlash, because the backlash means you’re questioning whether you still have a place at Google. The walkout showed how toxic it was at Google, right?

The other part of Pichai’s statement says that it’s important to me that our Black women and underrepresented Googlers know that we value you, and you do belong at Google. I wonder what would have made you feel valued, because it’s so clear when I listen to you that you feel like you were held up externally as sort of a beacon of diversity at Google, and yet you feel like you were undercut internally.

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It was so clear they weren’t even treating me like a person, because you would discuss things with any person, let alone a world-renowned expert. You wouldn’t just order them around. I was constantly devalued. I mean, constantly. People coming into Google told me this, that they could not reconcile the difference in which I was viewed externally with the way in which I was treated internally.

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Why do you think that is? Why do you think Google undervalued you? 

I think it’s mostly racism and sexism, even when it’s about issues of ethics. They have all of these responsible initiatives with almost no Black people. And the Black people in it are just infuriated all the time. I always talk about what’s called parachute research and my research where these group of people who look at you as a subject of study or something like that and they work on they like.  Oh, yeah, like imagine the black person, the marginalized black person in their natural habitat. It’s like, I don’t know, like a National Geographic or something, you know, how they talk about you and you just sitting there like, oh my gosh. And they get promoted and they publish papers and they don’t deal with the consequences.

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Have you heard from anyone at Google since this happened officially?

Officially, no. I haven’t even gotten my instructions on how to return Google assets. I believe they’ve made my check, but I have no idea how to turn in my work computer or anything like that. I’ve been checking my email. I certainly have not heard from anybody.

What do you want people to take away from this interview? 

I’m a human. I laugh and I talk, and I can be pretty outgoing. When you’re painted as this unreasonable, angry person who needs to be deescalated, it’s dehumanizing. It doesn’t tell a story of what you’ve gone through and what you have tried to overcome.

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Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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