Brianna White

Staff member
Mar 25, 2020
By now, we’ve all heard some version of the story. On December 2, after a protracted disagreement over the release of a research paper, Google forced out its ethical AI co-lead, Timnit Gebru. The paper was on the risks of large language models, AI models trained on staggering amounts of text data, which are a line of research core to Google’s business. Gebru, a leading voice in AI ethics, was one of the only Black women at Google Research.
The move has since sparked a debate about growing corporate influence over AI, the long-standing lack of diversity in tech, and what it means to do meaningful AI ethics research. As of December 15, over 2,600 Google employees and 4,300 others in academia, industry, and civil society had signed a petition denouncing the dismissal of Gebru, calling it “unprecedented research censorship” and “an act of retaliation.”
The company's star ethics researcher highlighted the risks of large language models, which are key to Google's business.
Gebru is known for foundational work in revealing AI discrimination, developing methods for documenting and auditing AI models, and advocating for greater diversity in research. In 2016, she cofounded the nonprofit Black in AI, which has become a central resource for civil rights activists, labor organizers, and leading AI ethics researchers, cultivating and highlighting Black AI research talent.
Losing her job didn’t slow Gebru down. The following week, she took part in several workshops at NeurIPS, the largest annual AI research conference, which over 20,000 people attended this year. It was “therapeutic,” she says, to see how the community she’d helped build showed up and supported one another. Now, another week later, she’s just winding down and catching her breath—and trying to make sense of it all.
On Monday, December 14, I caught up with Gebru via Zoom. She recounted what happened during her time at Google, reflected on what it meant for the field and AI ethics research, and gave parting words of advice to those who want to keep holding tech companies accountable. You can also listen to a special episode of our podcast, In Machines We Trust, for highlights from the interview. (Google declined a request for comment on the contents of this interview.)
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