Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Thursday, June 13, 2024

Google’s AI Ethics Flap Widens 

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Google’s AI ethics mess continues to spread, with reports this week that the company is investigating a second AI ethicist for scanning company files in search of examples of discriminatory treatment of ousted Google researcher Timnit Gebru.

Gebru was forced out of her position on Google’s AI ethics team in December following a dispute over attaching the company’s name to a research paper that had been accepted for publication.

According to reports this week, Google is investigating the actions of Margaret Mitchell, another member of the company’s AI ethics team. The website Axios reported that Mitchell downloaded and scanned internal files looking for examples of discrimination against Gebru.

Google confirmed to the website that Mitchell’s corporate account had been locked after internal controls detected the exfiltration and sharing of “thousands of files.”

Company accounts are automatically locked when internal controls detect a “risk of compromise due to credential problems or when an automated rule involving the handling of sensitive data has been triggered,” Google said.

Mitchell has been critical of Google executives for their handling of the AI ethics controversy. In a Twitter post this week, she criticized Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s plans to meet with Black college leaders.

“Say you have a problem with consistently alienating Black women and have caused serious damage in their lives. You could: A) try to undo that damage B) try to find more Black people to like you (the tokenism approach). Good luck...,” Mitchell tweeted.

Confirming Mitchell’s corporate account was locked, Gebru added in a separate post: “I have not seen a company that has this little shame in a while.”

The dispute prompted workers at Google parent company Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOGL) to form a union earlier this month. In a statement, the Alphabet Workers Union said Google’s actions against Gebru and Mitchell “are an attack on the people who are trying to make Google’s technology more ethical.”

The union noted that Mitchell founded Google’s Ethical AI team, “built a cross-product area coalition around machine learning fairness and is a critical member of academic and industry communities around the ethical production of AI.”

Pinchar has apologized for Google’s handling of Gebru's departure and pledged to investigate the matter, but has yet to release any details. Workers, including members of the Google Ethical AI team, responded by forming their union.

About the author: George Leopold

George Leopold has written about science and technology for more than 30 years, focusing on electronics and aerospace technology. He previously served as executive editor of Electronic Engineering Times. Leopold is the author of "Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom" (Purdue University Press, 2016).