Sundar Pichai, CEO of Alphabet, apologized in an internal memo to employees for the outrage sparked when Google fired renowned AI researcher Timnit Gebru and said he would start a bug review.
“I heard the reaction to Dr. Gebru’s departure loud and clear: it sparked doubts and made some in our community question their place on Google,” he explained in a copy of the memo seen by CNBC. “I want to say how sorry I am and I take the responsibility to work to restore your confidence.”
Pichai’s note comes a week after Gebru, a noted artificial intelligence researcher and technical co-lead of Google’s Ethical AI team, tweeted that Google fired her because of a disagreement over a research paper highlighting the bias regarding artificial intelligence was studied. Gebru, who had spoken openly about the company’s treatment of black employees, claimed the treatment showed a broader pattern on Google. Her firing sparked an industry firestorm of support and a petition signed by thousands of Google employees and industry peers.
The incident encompasses four issues that have given rise to controversy within the company in recent years: the ethical use of artificial intelligence, fair treatment of women, race and internal transparency. This is the biggest test of how CEO Sundar Pichai has dealt with employee unrest since founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin left the company about a year ago.
In Wednesday’s email, Pichai said the company must first “assess the circumstances that led to Dr. Gebru’s departure and see where we could have improved and had a more respectful process.”
Pichai apologized for the backlash caused by the resignation of Gebru, one of Google’s few black leaders.
Pichai said, “We must take responsibility for the fact that a prominent black female executive with immense talent left Google unhappy.” He added, “This loss has impacted some of our most underrepresented communities who have seen themselves and some of their experiences in Dr. Gebru’s.”
In an email Gebru sent before she was fired, she found that the company’s black employees felt their concerns were not being taken seriously. “We just had black research on all hands with such an emotional display of desperation,” wrote Gebru. “There is no accountability.”
Following George Floyd’s protests in the summer of 2020, Pichai pledged to address black workers’ concerns, adding that the company is earmarking $ 175 million to support black businesses and the number of under-represented people in its leadership by 30 by 2025 % will increase. Executives, including AI boss Jeff Dean, publicly pledged to oppose discriminatory treatment, which can be subtle.
Employees have asked for more clarity and transparency when it comes to the company’s June commitments to racial justice and retention.
Google declined to comment beyond the memo.
Gebru didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment, instead writing on Twitter: “Don’t paint me as an ‘angry black woman’ who needs ‘de-escalation strategies’ for … Take responsibility for your toxic leadership, HR, legal and other persons harassing and discriminating against people like me and protecting toxicity. “
Here is Pichai’s memo in full:
One of the things I was most proud of this year is how Googlers from across the company came together to make our racial commitments. It’s hard, important work, and while we are determined to do better, we still have a lot to learn and improve. An important part of this is learning from our experiences like the departure of Dr. Timnit Gebru.
I got the reaction to Dr. Gebru’s exit was heard loud and clear: it aroused doubts and led some in our community to question their place on Google. I want to say how sorry I am and I take the responsibility to work to restore your confidence.
First, we need to assess the circumstances leading to Dr. Gebru and investigate where we could have improved and had a more respectful process. We will provide an overview of what happened to identify all the points where we can learn – taking into account all aspects, from de-escalation strategies to new processes that we can introduce. Jeff and I have spoken and we are determined to do so. One of the best aspects of Google’s engineering culture is our genuine desire to understand where things go wrong and how we can improve.
Second, we must take responsibility for the fact that a prominent black female executive with immense talent left Google unhappy. This loss has impacted some of our most underrepresented communities, who put themselves and some of their experiences in Dr. Have seen Gebru’s. It was also very noticeable that Dr. Gebru is an expert in an important area of AI ethics that we must continue to make progress on – progress that depends on our ability to ask challenging questions.
It is incredibly important to me that our blacks, women and underrepresented Googlers know that we value you and that you are part of Google. And the burden of pushing us to do better shouldn’t fall on your shoulders. We started a conversation earlier this year when we announced a wide range of racial equality commitments to reconsider all of our systems from recruitment and leveling to promotion and retention, and the need for leadership responsibility in all of these Areas to tackle steps. The events of the past week are a painful but important reminder of the progress we have yet to make.
This is the top priority for me and Google Leads. I want to make a renewed commitment to translate the energy we have seen this year into real change as we prepare for 2021 and beyond.
Look now: The renowned AI researcher says Google abruptly fired her and sparked industry-wide criticism