The Plague-Ground – Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman-With-a-Big-Twitter-Following Scorned

Especially if you’re one of the world’s most revered ethicists on the use and abuse of AI.

But most especially if you’re the co-leader of the Ethical Artificial Intelligence Team at Google whose founding value of “Don’t Be Evil” was removed from the company’s code of conduct two years ago.

Given the lashing Google’s endured since ‘resigning’ Timnit Gebru last week for criticizing its diversity efforts, it may be time to bring that value back.

More productive, though, would be to ask why women whistleblowers are treated worse than men who rat out their egregious bosses. The easy answers are that women have less power than men in the workplace, and that tech culture in particular rewards sucking up and kicking down, and that the Harvey Weinstein scandal led to the rise of female whistleblowers.

But Timnit Gebru’s case is different. She founded Black in AI, the non-profit that pushes for more people of colour in the field, and in 2018 she co-authored a widely-cited paper that found women with darker skin tones were susceptible to higher error rates in facial recognition technology.

Last month, according to Wired, Gebru “received disturbing news from a senior manager. She says the manager asked her to either retract or remove her name from a research paper she had coauthored, because an internal review had found the contents objectionable.”

“The paper discussed ethical issues raised by recent advances in AI technology that works with language, which Google has said is important to the future of its business. Gebru says she objected because the process was unscholarly.”

She then sent a withering e-mail to the internal listserv, Google Brain Women and Allies. Again, this was to an internal Google group. A few days later she claims she was fired. Jeff Dean from Google said she resigned, and sent this note to his colleagues.

But then, as always happens when dirty laundry gets washed in the sunshine, all hell broke loose.

By last Friday, more than 1,200 Google workers and 1,500 researchers from outside Google condemned how the company had treated her.

By Monday, according to the BBC, an open letter demanding that Google tell-all about Gebru’s removal, had been signed by 4,500 DeepMind researchers and British academics.

Forty-five hundred.

By yesterday, members of Timnit Gebru’s own team at Google published a second open letter challenging Google’s account.

“I stand with Dr. Timnit Gebru,” said Tabitha Goldstaub.

Who is she?

The chair of the British Government’s AI Council.

For Timnit Gebru, it can only get better, and for Google, even worse.

Because this issue has everything: racism, sexism, bullying, academic freedom, selective publication, sponsored research, overlords and underdogs, and at the heart of it all, a whistleblower.

A Black female whistleblower who is making Google look like the very things her AI research warned the world against.

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8 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman-With-a-Big-Twitter-Following Scorned”

  1. Bob Ramsay,
    I look forward to your daily column. Often it carries remarkable observations on news pieces that i would ordinarily see.
    I wish for you, a different signature other than “cheers”. this sign off very often seems to me to work against the very seriousness of your own reviews.
    Fred v.

  2. Thanks for this blog post, Bob. I enjoy reading you everyday and hope you never stop. A very worrisome situation at Google, but it sounds like Dr. Gebru has it well under control and won’t be backing down. It will be very interesting to see how it all unfolds….

  3. Judith McDermid

    Thank you Bob, so timely and sensitive on so many important levels. Your blog is one of the great things to have come out of this pandemic… keep on keeping on, please.

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