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How Timnit Gebru's Academic Paper Set Off a Firestorm at Google

Timnit Gebru
Timnit Gebru

Photographer: Kimberly White/Getty Images 

Hi all, Gerrit here. Last week, a battle erupted at Google, spilling out onto social media and finding its way into dozens of news articles and blog posts. Timnit Gebru, a prominent artificial intelligence researcher best-known for showing how facial recognition algorithms are better at identifying white faces than Black and Brown ones, said on Twitter that she’d been fired from the company after a dispute over an academic paper she co-authored.

Gebru, one of the few high-profile Black women in her field, was co-head of Google’s Ethical AI team—a group of researchers that study the downsides of AI and how to make sure the tech is implemented without hurting people. The exact reasons behind Gebru’s ouster are being contested, publicly, right now. Google’s head of AI, Jeff Dean, told employees in an email he later posted online that Gebru’s paper left out key information and that she didn’t follow the company’s process for vetting work to be published externally. Gebru and her supporters—which include hundreds of current and former employees of Google parent Alphabet Inc.—say the real reason for her dismissal was her outspoken criticism of Google’s progress on improving conditions for people of color at the company.