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Google CEO apologizes for handling of AI researcher Timnit Gebru's departure

Sundar Pichai said the company will investigate the events around her exit.

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Google CEO Sundar Pichai sent an email to employees about the departure of AI researcher Timnit Gebru.

James Martin/CNET

Google CEO Sundar Pichai on Wednesday apologized for the tech giant's handling of the departure of Timnit Gebru, a star artificial intelligence researcher who left the company last week.

In an email to employees, Pichai said Google would investigate the circumstances around Gebru's exit, which sparked outrage among Google's workforce and around the tech industry. Pichai said the company would also consider new processes to put in place for the future.

"I've heard the reaction to Dr. Gebru's departure loud and clear: it seeded doubts and led some in our community to question their place at Google," Pichai wrote in the email, which was earlier published by Axios. "I want to say how sorry I am for that, and I accept the responsibility of working to restore your trust."

Gebru said last week that she departed Google after a dispute over a research paper she co-wrote that was critical of the company's AI systems. In a series of tweets, Gebru said she was fired by Google, though the company claims she resigned. Gebru denied the claim, and said that despite not providing a resignation, a vice president of engineering at Google emailed Gebru's direct reports to say she was resigning.

In his email, Pichai said Google needed to "accept responsibility" that Gebru, one of the few prominent Black women in AI, left the company "unhappily." Pichai, however, stopped short of apologizing to Gebru, nor did he mention the possibility of reinstating her. 

Google declined to comment beyond Pichai's email. Gebru didn't respond to a request for comment. But the researcher seemed to refer to the email on Twitter, telling Google, "Take responsibility for your toxic leaders, HR, Legal and other entities who harass and discriminate against people like me and protect toxicity." 

The incident involving Gebru has intensified already fraught relations between Google management and some in its rank-and-file workforce. On the same day that Gebru tweeted about her departure, Google was accused by the US National Labor Relations Board of retaliating against workers who organized protests against the search giant. In a complaint, the agency said Google broke US labor laws by surveilling, interrogating and firing activist employees.