The departure of 2 Google AI researchers triggers more fallout

Monday morning, some the world’s leading minds in robotics and machine learning were to come together for an invitation-only virtual research workshop hosted by Google. Two visiting academics did not log in as expected: they withdrew to protest Google’s treatment of two women who said they were unfairly fired from the company. artificial intelligence research division. A third academic who had previously received funding from Google took his own stand, saying he would no longer ask for its support.

Although small in scope, the boycott illustrates some of the damage done to Google’s reputation by the acrimonious departures of Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell, co-leaders of a team working to make AI systems more ethical. The controversy has drawn new attention to the influence of technology companies on AI research, and led researchers inside and outside of Google to question whether it was distort research in the impact of AI on society.

In December, Gebru said she was fired after resisting pressure to remove or remove his name from a research paper highlighting the drawbacks of word processing technology. Mitchell, a co-author on paper, was fired in February, apparently after trying to gather evidence about Gebru’s treatment at Google. This month, a premier conference on equity and transparency in IT, where paper has been presented Last week, Google stripped from its list of sponsors.

Google’s three-day event this week is called Machine Learning and Robot Safety Workshop. Hadas Kress-Gazit, professor of robotics at Cornell, was invited in January, after Gebru left the company but before Mitchell left. His research group is working on creating software to reliably control robots, which can protect machines and the people around them. But after Google’s AI ethics controversy snowballed and the event loomed closer, she started reconsidering.

On Friday morning, Kress-Gazit emailed event organizers to let them know that she would not be attending as she did not wish to be associated with Google search in any way. “Not only is the search process and Google’s integrity tainted, but it’s clear from the way these women have been treated that all of the talk about corporate diversity is performative,” a- she writes. Kress-Gazit says she wasn’t expecting it. her action to have a big impact on Google, or her own future work, but she wanted to show her solidarity with Gebru and Mitchell, their team and their research program.

Another guest at the event, Scott Niekum, director of a robotics lab at the University of Texas at Austin, made a similar decision. “Google has shown an astonishing lack of leadership and commitment to open science, ethics and diversity in their treatment of the ethical AI team, especially Drs. Gebru and Mitchell, ”he wrote in his own email to the workshop organizers, asking them to convey his decision and comment on Google leadership.

Niekum’s colleague at UT Austin, Assistant Professor Vijay Chidambaram, who works on computer storage systems, tweeted in support of Kress-Gazit’s protest against Google on Friday and said he would no longer seek funding from Google. His department’s webpage says his work has been supported by the company in the past.

“If academia still has the incentive to search for Google’s next payout,” he wrote, researchers could “continue to rationalize and excuse everything Google does.” He said the position might force his students to find other sources of funding, but that opting out of the business was “the right thing to do.” Chidambaram did not respond to requests for comment.

Google is closely associated with computer research around the world, especially in the area of machine learning. The company offers several funding programs for graduate students and academics, including one for early career teachers which offers grants of up to $ 60,000.

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