Google AI chief says reputation hit to unit is 'real' after turmoil

In his first interview since the ouster of high-profile researchers, Jeff Dean acknowledges the toll of the controversy.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
3 min read

Google AI Chief Jeff Dean

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A series of recent controversies at Google's artificial intelligence division could weigh on its ability to attract new researchers, the unit's chief acknowledged, a recognition that comes as the company unveils ambitious plans to expand its operations in AI ethics.

Google's AI unit has been mired in turmoil for months following the departures of high-profile researchers. The staffers had identified problems they saw with the tech giant's AI technology. Their departures raise concerns Google may have difficulty recruiting talent who would spotlight issues with the company's projects when warranted.

"The reputational hit is a real thing," AI chief Jeff Dean told CNET ahead of the Google I/O developer conference. "But we have to move past this, and we are deeply committed to doing work in the space and feel it's a really important area."

The discord in the unit became public in December, when Timnit Gebru, one of the few prominent Black women in the field, tweeted that she had been fired over a research paper that called out risks for bias in AI. The paper included scrutiny of systems used by Google's search engine. 

The incident sparked outrage both across the industry and within Alphabet-owned Google, where thousands of employees signed a petition in support of Gebru. The fallout led to Google's firing of Margaret Mitchell, who founded the company's ethical AI team and co-led it with Gebru, after an investigation over data security. Samy Bengio, who managed Gebru and Mitchell and had been supportive of the researchers, resigned last month.

Reached for comment, Gebru said the company "continues to gaslight me and minimize the issue after all this time."

"Obviously they were hoping I would just go quietly and waste into obscurity, after firing me for speaking up against racism and sexism," she said. "What they really regret is that they didn't do it in such a way that the outcome would have been that."

Mitchell declined to comment other than to say the company should acknowledge it "resignated" or forced a resignation on Gebru.

Bengio didn't respond to a request for comment.

Google has since restructured its teams that focus on the responsible development of AI. The new team is led by Marian Croak, vice president of engineering and a Google veteran. Croak said at a Wall Street Journal conference last week that the company would double the size of its responsible AI team to 200 people in coming years. 

Dean said the scrutiny is welcome. "We are not shy of criticism of our own products," he said. "As long as it's done with a lens towards facts and appropriate treatment of the broad set of work we're doing in this space, but also to address some of these issues." 

The interview was Dean's first since the controversy spilled into public view. The purpose of the briefing was to discuss Google's artificial intelligence announcements for I/O, which kicked off on Tuesday. The questions about the controversy with the Ethical AI team were a part of that broader conversation.

Dean's only previous public remarks on the matter were in an email sent to employees addressing Gebru's departure shortly after her dismissal. He tweeted the memo along with notes about Google's research paper submission process. 

The remarks drew blowback because Dean characterized Gebru's departure as a resignation, though the researcher said she was fired. The dispute over Gebru's dismissal arose after a Google vice president demanded she retract the research paper. Gebru replied by laying out conditions to be met concerning the paper, adding that if they weren't followed, she'd work toward a final day at the company. The vice president then emailed Gebru's direct reports to say the company had accepted her resignation. 

"The decisions could have been communicated more clearly, I would say," Dean said in the interview, though he held firm to his issues with the paper and repeated points he made in his earlier email to employees. 

In February, Google said it wrapped up an internal review of its treatment of Gebru. At the time, the company said it worked with outside counsel for the investigation, but declined to share the findings of the probe.