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Google fires researcher Margaret Mitchell amid chaos in AI division

The search giant has dismissed both leaders of its Ethical AI team.

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"I'm fired," researcher Margaret Mitchell wrote on Twitter.

Angela Lang/CNET

Google on Friday fired Margaret Mitchell, who co-led the company's Ethical AI team, more than two months after the controversial ousting of Timnit Gebru, the team's other leader. The move escalates a tense situation at a Google division already in turmoil.

Mitchell had been the subject of an investigation by Google for her treatment of company data. The Google manager had reportedly used automated software to go through her old messages to find examples of discriminatory treatment toward Gebru. Mitchell said she had been locked out of her corporate account for five weeks while Google conducted the probe.

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"I'm fired," Mitchell wrote Friday on Twitter. Mitchell didn't respond to requests for comment.

Google confirmed the dismissal. "After conducting a review of this manager's conduct, we confirmed that there were multiple violations of our code of conduct, as well as of our security policies, which included the exfiltration of confidential business-sensitive documents and private data of other employees," a spokeswoman said in a statement.

Mitchell's firing comes as Google faces blowback over the ouster of Gebru, one of the few prominent Black women in the field. Gebru in December announced she was fired over a research paper that calls out risks for bias in AI, including in systems used by Google's search engine. Gebru also emailed a group of Google employees, criticizing the company's diversity and equity programs. 

Gebru's exit has caused widespread outrage among Google's rank-and-file workforce and around the broader tech industry. Nearly 2,700 Googlers have signed an open letter in support of Gebru, and members of Gebru's former team at Google sent a letter to CEO Sundar Pichai demanding she be reinstated.

Google on Friday also said it wrapped up an internal review of its treatment of Gebru. The company said it worked with outside counsel for the investigation, but declined to share the findings of the probe. The Google spokeswoman didn't answer specific questions about how the investigation was conducted. 

Following the review, Google said it'll make changes to its human resource and diversity policies. The company said it'll tie diversity goals to performance reviews of vice presidents and up. Google also said it's doubling its team involved in employee retention. The company will consult HR specialists to deal with employee exits that could be controversial. 

The policy changes on Friday drew criticism from Gebru and her supporters. 

"I write an email asking for things, I get fired, and then after a 3-month investigation, they say they should probably do some of the things I presumably got fired asking for, without holding anyone accountable for their actions," Gebru wrote on Twitter. In another tweet, she added, "There is ZERO accountability. ZERO."

Gebru didn't respond to a request for additional comment. 

The changes were announced a day after Google said it's restructuring its teams that focus on the responsible development of AI. The new team will be led by Marian Croak, a vice president of engineering at the tech giant.