In the wake of Google’s high-profile missteps with its ethical AI team, the company has suffered a loss of credibility as researchers decline its funding.
Google made headlines when it fired Dr. Timnit Gebru, its ethical AI team co-lead. Despite the company trying to portray the situation as a “resignation,” Dr. Gebru and her co-workers say she was fired. Given her stature as one of the world’s leading AI ethics researchers, Google’s actions resulted in tremendous scrutiny.
At the heart of the issue was academic integrity, with Google objecting to a paper Dr. Gebru had co-authored, critical of certain types of AI technology, including some that Google uses. Margaret Mitchell, the other ethical AI team co-lead, was fired shortly thereafter.
Google’s actions have drawn widespread condemnation, from both inside and outside the organization. Some engineers have quit in protest, and the firings were directly cited by workers when forming the Alphabet Workers Union. The company has also seen its sponsorship of at least one high-profile conference suspended.
The company’s behavior is further impacting its standing in the AI community, as some researchers are turning down funding offers.
CNN Business cites the example of Luke Stark, an assistant professor at Western University in Ontario, Canada. He originally applied for a Google Research Scholar award, because of his “sense at the time that Google was building a really strong, potentially industry-leading ethical AI team.”
Despite being awarded a $60,000, no-strings-attached grant, Stark ultimately ended up turning it down because of the company’s actions.
He’s not alone. Vijay Chidambaram, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, had previously received $30,000 from Google in 2018. The company’s recent actions, however, have ruled out his taking any additional funding.
“In good conscience, I can no longer accept funding from a company that treats its employees in this manner,” Chidambaram told CNN Business.
Google has made attempts to mitigate the damage to its reputation, including an apology from CEO Sundar Pichai and appointing Dr. Marian Croak, a Black woman, to head the ethical AI team. These measures, however, have been criticized as being tone-deaf, shifting blame or an attempt to gloss over the company’s real issues with token measures.
One thing is clear: Google has a major creditability problem that will continue to cost it until it takes concrete measures to address the real problem.