ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Some tech leaders have been trying to prevent artificial intelligence from adopting the same racist assumptions as real humans, and a Black woman who is a leading researcher in the field says she was fired from Google after a dispute over some of her work. A group of her former colleagues and academics wrote an open letter calling this, quote, "unprecedented research censorship." NPR's Bobby Allyn is following this story. And before we begin, we need to note that Google is a financial supporter of NPR. Hi, Bobby.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Tell us more about this researcher. Who is she, and what did she do at Google?
ALLYN: Yeah. Her name is Timnit Gebru, and she's kind of this all-star researcher in her field. She's done, you know, some of the leading studies into how things like facial recognition technology can be biased against women and people of color. She started a group called Black in AI because there are just so few Black scientists working on artificial intelligence. Her mission as a scientist has basically been to show how technology can hurt marginalized groups. And Google found that interesting enough that they hired her. And they had her lead a team of researchers who are studying the ethics of AI, something that's huge to the future of Google's business.
SHAPIRO: But her employment there was cut short. Tell us what happened.
ALLYN: Right. So Gebru and six other researchers had just finished a draft of a research paper they wanted to submit to a conference next year. And I've reviewed the paper, Ari, and it is pretty dense. But essentially, it's about a tool that can scan massive amounts of texts online and generate sentences that look like they were written by a human. Gebru wrote in the paper that this tool might end up mirroring some of the hate and discrimination and other awful things you could find on the Internet.
And Gebru says out of nowhere, she was told the paper had to be retracted. And she was like, why? And she wasn't told why. And so she said, if I'm not told why this paper has to be retracted, I might even resign over it. But, Ari, she never had a chance to. Gebru told me she found out what happened when she was talking to one of her team members.
TIMNIT GEBRU: Literally right then, she was, like, oh, my God. What? What's happening? What's happening? Did you resign? What's going on? What's going on? And I'm like, what?
ALLYN: Gebru says she never resigned but was fired.
GEBRU: I feel like people silenced me in the most fundamental way - by trying to censor my scientific voice.
SHAPIRO: Wow. So does Google have a different version of the story? What are they saying about this?
ALLYN: They do have a different version of the story. Google says that she threatened to resign unless management met with her to discuss why it wouldn't support the paper, and they wouldn't do that. So they considered it a resignation. But there's another layer to the story here. Gebru has been outspoken about the need for more women and more people of color at Google, and she wrote an email to co-workers criticizing Google's lack of progress in diversifying. She even encouraged them to stop participating in a diversity program Google had started. She saw it as useless. And in an email I reviewed sent by her boss at Google to colleagues, he sounded pretty irked about that. Since yesterday, though, more than 1,200 Google employees have signed an open letter demanding answers about how she was let go.
SHAPIRO: So, obviously, this has touched a nerve and deals with some larger issues than one employee. What are her supporters saying about this?
ALLYN: Yeah, it does. So the letter from her colleagues says she faced, quote, "defensiveness, racism, gaslighting, research censorship and now a retaliatory firing." And a big theme that's come out in the upwelling of social media reaction is that this, like you said, is not an isolated incident at Google. Some are connecting it to past walkouts over racial inclusion and sexual harassment. I talked to Ifeoma Ozoma. She's a consultant who works on tech accountability, and she's a former Google employee.
IFEOMA OZOMA: So Google is doing this over and over again and seems to not care at all and to believe that they can continue to get away with it.
ALLYN: Yeah. And so what Gebru's case has done is put the spotlight on Google and whether it can indeed handle dissent from its employees.
SHAPIRO: NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn, thank you.
ALLYN: Thanks, Ari.
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