Having dismissed two key researchers, Google restructured its efforts in AI ethics.

What’s new: Marian Croak, an accomplished software engineer and vice president of engineering at Google, will lead a new center of expertise in responsible AI, the company announced. The move came amid uproar over the exits of her predecessors Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell.

What happened: Google’s Ethical AI group has been in flux since last December when Gebru, the group’s technical co-lead with Mitchell, left the company. Gebru says she was fired, while Google’s latest communiqué refers to Gebru’s “exit.”

  • In December, members of Ethical AI demanded that Google CEO Sundar Pichai reinstate Gebru and make other changes. More than 2,600 Google employees signed a letter expressing solidarity with the ethics researcher.
  • Google put Croak in charge of the newly established Responsible AI Research and Engineering Center of Expertise, which will oversee Ethical AI and coordinate research into fairness and bias among 10 Google teams.
  • One day after announcing the new organization, Google dismissed Margaret Mitchell. She had been under investigation internally for allegedly copying documents related to Gebru’s departure to a personal computer. Mitchell’s termination triggered another wave of employee outrage.

Behind the news: In December, Gebru was on the verge of publishing a paper that criticized large language models including Google’s own BERT. Executives asked her to either retract the paper or remove the names of all Google co-authors.

  • Gebru responded with a request that Google take certain actions as a condition of her employment. Her managers interpreted this as an ultimatum and told her they had accepted her resignation. Gebru has said that she did not offer to resign.
  • On Friday, Dean apologized in an email to the staff for Google’s handling of Gebru’s exit and announced new policies prompted by an internal review.

Why it matters: Google is a leader in AI and one of the most powerful companies in the world. Its approach to ethical challenges — and its treatment of employees — are highly influential throughout the tech industry.

We’re thinking: Under Gebru and Mitchell, Google’s Ethical AI team developed tools to improve model transparency, examined how social constructs of race manifest in AI, and released a framework for identifying risks posed by models in development. We hope the people who carry on this work will pursue similarly ambitious projects.

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