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Google Says It's Committed to Ethical AI Research. Its Ethical AI Team Isn't So Sure

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Timnit Gebru.

Googles ethical AI department has been in a state of flux since the company fired Timnit Gebru, the teams former leader.

Credit: Kimberly White/Getty Images/TechCrunch

Six months after star AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru said Google fired her over an academic paper scrutinizing a technology that powers some of the company's key products, the company says it's still deeply committed to ethical AI research. It promised to double its research staff studying responsible AI to 200 people, and CEO Sundar Pichai has pledged his support to fund more ethical AI projects. Jeff Dean, the company's head of AI, said in May that while the controversy surrounding Gebru's departure was a "reputational hit," it's time to move on.

But some current members of Google's tightly knit ethical AI group told Recode the reality is different from the one Google executives are publicly presenting. The 10-person group, which studies how artificial intelligence impacts society, is a subdivision of Google's broader new responsible AI organization. They say the team has been in a state of limbo for months, and that they have serious doubts company leaders can rebuild credibility in the academic community — or that they will listen to the group's ideas. Google has yet to hire replacements for the two former leaders of the team. Many members feel so adrift that they convene daily in a private messaging group to complain about leadership, manage themselves on an ad-hoc basis, and seek guidance from their former bosses. Some are considering leaving to work at other tech companies or to return to academia, and say their colleagues are thinking of doing the same.

"We want to continue our research, but it's really hard when this has gone on for months," said Alex Hanna, a researcher on the ethical AI team. Despite the challenges, Hanna added, individual researchers are trying to continue their work and effectively manage themselves — but if conditions don't change, "I don't see much of a path forward for ethics at Google in any kind of substantive way."

A spokesperson for Google's AI and research department declined to comment on the ethical AI team.

From Recode
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