Google fires its second head of AI Ethics, a step back for the advocacy of deploying ethical AI.

Google fired Margaret Mitchell, who was the co-lead of Google’s Ethical AI team. This news came after they investigated her use of corporate email for purposes against the company’s policy. Consequently, this led to a considerable amount of scrutiny, as Google proudly recognizes itself as being a transparent and diverse organization, words that fall bleak on the aftermath of an issue such as this.  

Big companies fire and hire people all the time, so why does it matter? 

Two reasons. For starters, the world of technology is grappling with ethical dilemmas now, and firing the head of an AI ethics team, is news that would seem suspicious to many. Secondly, the firing came months after Google allegedly fired its other AI Ethics head- Timnit Gebru, and on the same day, as when they announced that they had looked into the investigation of her exit from the company.  

‘Meg Mitchell, lead of the Ethical AI team has been fired. She got an email to her personal email. After locking her out for 5 weeks. There are many words I can say right now. I’m glad to know that people don’t fall for any of their bull. To the VPs at google, I pity you.’, tweeted Timrit Gebru, as her colleague met with the same fate as her. 

The firing of Timrit Gebru has many unclear attributes, which connects to the current firing of Margaret Mitchell. Gebru, a pioneer in AI ethics, wrote a letter to Google’s management team after asking her to remove Google’s name from a paper that she along with her teammates had submitted. The paper delved into issues regarding large-scale language processing, the basic foundations of Google. Gebru asked the company to respond to her encouraging transparency and announced that she would leave the company if they did not respond. Google responded by saying that they accepted they accepted this as her immediate resignation.  

Twitter was in a frenzy with these firings, as both Gebru and Mitchell used it to show their dissonance with the decision. There was a good amount of support and angst for both of them. It became severe, as Google’s head of AI, Jeff Dean, mentioned that Gebru’s paper did not reach the bar for publication and missed out on relevant research. This blatant statement further angered Twitter academia, as Gebru was one of the leading researchers in AI ethics. As a Black woman in Computer Science, she was a role model for one of the majorly underrepresented groups in technology.  

Companies like Google are known for the research they produce in terms of a diverse framework of topics. AI ethics, which is a relatively new area, has had tremendous contributions from corporations. Still, decisions like these pave the way for questions regarding the kind of research that they produce. It points to the limiting capacity of a corporate research, as the conflict of interest is significantly higher than that of academic research.  

It is interesting to note how these companies are seldom told to accept their flaws and be more transparent. Things are heating up more now as the public has more digitally literate members who understand how powerful data can be and how the owners of our personal data use it to assimilate profitable ideas and assets through them. Suppose the corporations do not highlight ethical accountability – in that case, there is a good chance for a change of attitude towards them, leading to a severe downfall in terms of reputation and usage.  

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