Departure of 2 Google AI researchers spurs more spinoffs

Monday morning, some of the world’s top minds in robotics and machine learning have come together for an invitation-only, virtual research workshop hosted by Google. Two visiting scholars didn’t log in as expected: They pulled out to protest Google’s treatment of two women who said they were unfairly fired from the company’s artificial intelligence research division. A third academic who previously received funding from Google has taken a stand, saying he will no longer seek its support.

Although small in scale, 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 tech companies on AI research and has led researchers inside and outside of Google to question whether it is misrepresenting research on the impact of AI. AI on society.

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

Google’s three-day event this week is called the Machine Learning and Robot Safety Workshop. Hadas Kress-Gazit, a Cornell robotics professor, was invited in January, after Gebru left the company but before Mitchell left. His research group works to create software to control robots reliably, which can protect machines and the people around them. But after controversy over Google’s AI ethics snowballed and the event grew closer, she began to reconsider.

On Friday morning, Kress-Gazit emailed event organizers saying she wouldn’t be attending because she didn’t want to be associated with Google Search in any way. “Not only is the search process and the integrity of Google tainted, but it’s clear from the way these women were treated that all of the company’s diversity talk is performative,” he said. she writes. Kress-Gazit said she didn’t expect her action to have much effect on Google, or on her own future work, but she wanted to show 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 showed a startling lack of leadership and commitment to open science, ethics and diversity in its treatment of the Ethical AI team, especially Drs. Gebru and Mitchell,” he said. -he writes in his own email to the workshop organizers, asking them to relay his decision and comments to Google management.

A colleague of Niekum’s 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 indicates that his work has been supported by the company in the past.

“If academia is still incentivized to seek Google’s next payout,” he wrote, researchers might “continue to rationalize and excuse everything Google does.” He said the position might require his students to find other sources of funding, but that divesting from the company was “the right thing to do”. Chidambaram did not respond to requests for comment.

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

The company has supported more than 500 doctoral students since it began offering scholarships to doctoral students 12 years ago. The most recent cohort, announced in October, has more than 50 people, with machine learning being the most common research topic. Google is also a prominent sponsor of major machine learning and AI conferences.

James G. Williams