The withering email that got an ethical AI researcher fired at Google
"Stop writing your documents because it doesn’t make a difference": Timnit Gebru's final message to her peers
This post is free for all to read thanks to the investment Platformer subscribers have made in independent journalism. If this work is meaningful to you, I invite you to become a subscriber today.
Last week, a prominent a co-leader of the Ethical Artificial Intelligence team at Google sent an email to her colleagues. Timnit Gebru had been working on a research paper that she hoped to publish, but ran into resistance from her superiors at Google. And so she sent a letter expressing her frustration to the internal listserv Google Brain Women and Allies.
A few days later, Gebru was fired — Google reportedly found the email “inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager.” It details the struggles Gebru experienced as a Black leader working on ethics research within the company, and presents a bleak view of the path forward for underrepresented minorities at the company.
Gebru is well known and respected in the AI ethics community; here are Shelly Banjo and Mark Bergen on her background at Bloomberg:
Gebru, an alumni of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, is one of the leading voices in the ethical use of artificial intelligence. She is well-known for her work on a landmark study in 2018 that showed how facial recognition software misidentified dark-skinned women as much as 35% of the time, whereas the technology worked with near precision on white men.
She has also been an outspoken critic of the lack of diversity and unequal treatment of Black workers at tech companies, particularly at Alphabet Inc.’s Google, and said she believed her dismissal was meant to send a message to the rest of Google’s employees not to speak up.
Platformer received the email Gebru sent; she herself did not have access to her account after Google terminated her. It is published in full below.
Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But on Thursday morning, Jeff Dean, the head of Google research, emailed employees with his account of what happened. Dean said Gebru had issued ultimatum and would resign unless certain conditions were met. Platformer obtained Dean’s email as well; you can find it below Gebru’s.
I had stopped writing here as you may know, after all the micro and macro aggressions and harassments I received after posting my stories here (and then of course it started being moderated).
Recently however, I was contributing to a document that Katherine and Daphne were writing where they were dismayed by the fact that after all this talk, this org seems to have hired 14% or so women this year. Samy has hired 39% from what I understand but he has zero incentive to do this.
What I want to say is stop writing your documents because it doesn’t make a difference. The DEI OKRs that we don’t know where they come from (and are never met anyways), the random discussions, the “we need more mentorship” rather than “we need to stop the toxic environments that hinder us from progressing” the constant fighting and education at your cost, they don’t matter. Because there is zero accountability. There is no incentive to hire 39% women: your life gets worse when you start advocating for underrepresented people, you start making the other leaders upset when they don’t want to give you good ratings during calibration. There is no way more documents or more conversations will achieve anything. We just had a Black research all hands with such an emotional show of exasperation. Do you know what happened since? Silencing in the most fundamental way possible.
Have you ever heard of someone getting “feedback” on a paper through a privileged and confidential document to HR? Does that sound like a standard procedure to you or does it just happen to people like me who are constantly dehumanized?
Imagine this: You’ve sent a paper for feedback to 30+ researchers, you’re awaiting feedback from PR & Policy who you gave a heads up before you even wrote the work saying “we’re thinking of doing this”, working on a revision plan figuring out how to address different feedback from people, haven’t heard from PR & Policy besides them asking you for updates (in 2 months). A week before you go out on vacation, you see a meeting pop up at 4:30pm PST on your calendar (this popped up at around 2pm). No one would tell you what the meeting was about in advance. Then in that meeting your manager’s manager tells you “it has been decided” that you need to retract this paper by next week, Nov. 27, the week when almost everyone would be out (and a date which has nothing to do with the conference process). You are not worth having any conversations about this, since you are not someone whose humanity (let alone expertise recognized by journalists, governments, scientists, civic organizations such as the electronic frontiers foundation etc) is acknowledged or valued in this company.
Then, you ask for more information. What specific feedback exists? Who is it coming from? Why now? Why not before? Can you go back and forth with anyone? Can you understand what exactly is problematic and what can be changed?
And you are told after a while, that your manager can read you a privileged and confidential document and you’re not supposed to even know who contributed to this document, who wrote this feedback, what process was followed or anything. You write a detailed document discussing whatever pieces of feedback you can find, asking for questions and clarifications, and it is completely ignored. And you’re met with, once again, an order to retract the paper with no engagement whatsoever.
Then you try to engage in a conversation about how this is not acceptable and people start doing the opposite of any sort of self reflection—trying to find scapegoats to blame.
Silencing marginalized voices like this is the opposite of the NAUWU principles which we discussed. And doing this in the context of “responsible AI” adds so much salt to the wounds. I understand that the only things that mean anything at Google are levels, I’ve seen how my expertise has been completely dismissed. But now there’s an additional layer saying any privileged person can decide that they don’t want your paper out with zero conversation. So you’re blocked from adding your voice to the research community—your work which you do on top of the other marginalization you face here.
I’m always amazed at how people can continue to do thing after thing like this and then turn around and ask me for some sort of extra DEI work or input. This happened to me last year. I was in the middle of a potential lawsuit for which Kat Herller and I hired feminist lawyers who threatened to sue Google (which is when they backed off--before that Google lawyers were prepared to throw us under the bus and our leaders were following as instructed) and the next day I get some random “impact award.” Pure gaslighting.
So if you would like to change things, I suggest focusing on leadership accountability and thinking through what types of pressures can also be applied from the outside. For instance, I believe that the Congressional Black Caucus is the entity that started forcing tech companies to report their diversity numbers. Writing more documents and saying things over and over again will tire you out but no one will listen.
And here is the email that Jeff Dean sent out to Googlers on Thursday morning.
I’m sure many of you have seen that Timnit Gebru is no longer working at Google. This is a difficult moment, especially given the important research topics she was involved in, and how deeply we care about responsible AI research as an org and as a company.
Because there’s been a lot of speculation and misunderstanding on social media, I wanted to share more context about how this came to pass, and assure you we’re here to support you as you continue the research you’re all engaged in.
Timnit co-authored a paper with four fellow Googlers as well as some external collaborators that needed to go through our review process (as is the case with all externally submitted papers). We’ve approved dozens of papers that Timnit and/or the other Googlers have authored and then published, but as you know, papers often require changes during the internal review process (or are even deemed unsuitable for submission). Unfortunately, this particular paper was only shared with a day’s notice before its deadline — we require two weeks for this sort of review — and then instead of awaiting reviewer feedback, it was approved for submission and submitted.
A cross functional team then reviewed the paper as part of our regular process and the authors were informed that it didn’t meet our bar for publication and were given feedback about why. It ignored too much relevant research — for example, it talked about the environmental impact of large models, but disregarded subsequent research showing much greater efficiencies. Similarly, it raised concerns about bias in language models, but didn’t take into account recent research to mitigate these issues. We acknowledge that the authors were extremely disappointed with the decision that Megan and I ultimately made, especially as they’d already submitted the paper.
Timnit responded with an email requiring that a number of conditions be met in order for her to continue working at Google, including revealing the identities of every person who Megan and I had spoken to and consulted as part of the review of the paper and the exact feedback. Timnit wrote that if we didn’t meet these demands, she would leave Google and work on an end date. We accept and respect her decision to resign from Google.
Given Timnit's role as a respected researcher and a manager in our Ethical AI team, I feel badly that Timnit has gotten to a place where she feels this way about the work we’re doing. I also feel badly that hundreds of you received an email just this week from Timnit telling you to stop work on critical DEI programs. Please don’t. I understand the frustration about the pace of progress, but we have important work ahead and we need to keep at it.
I know we all genuinely share Timnit’s passion to make AI more equitable and inclusive. No doubt, wherever she goes after Google, she’ll do great work and I look forward to reading her papers and seeing what she accomplishes.
Thank you for reading and for all the important work you continue to do.