Google engineers leave the company over controversial exit of top AI ethicist

Mariella Moon
·Associate Editor
·3-min read

Google has lost a couple of talents due to the way it treated and the departure of its former top AI ethics researcher, Dr. Timnit Gebru. According to Reuters, engineering director David Baker left the tech giant last month after 16 years with the company. In a letter seen by the news organization, Baker said Gebru’s exit “extinguished [his] desire to continue as a Googler.” He added: “We cannot say we believe in diversity, and then ignore the conspicuous absence of many voices from within our walls.”

Software engineer Vinesh Kannan, who built infrastructure and features for organic shopping on the website, has also left the company. Kannan explained in a tweet that he made his decision because “Google's mistreatment of @timnitGebru and @RealAbril (April Christina Curley) crossed a personal red line.”

Timnit Gebru used to co—lead Google’s Ethical Artificial Intelligence Team until her controversial exit. Gebru said she was fired after sending an email to the company’s internal “Brain Women and Allies” list. In a report trying to get to the bottom of what happened, MIT’s Technology Review said Gebru’s departure was a result of a conflict over a paper she co-authored. The paper discussed issues with training language AI, including its environmental impact and its potential to cause a disadvantage to marginalized groups.

Google AI head Jeff Dean reportedly told colleagues in an internal email that the paper “didn’t meet [the company’s] bar for publication.” Gebru apparently pushed back on orders to pull the research and told the tech giant she would resign if her conditions weren’t met. She wrote on Twitter that Google didn’t agree to her conditions and accepted her resignation, ending her employment much earlier than the date she specified and even before she got back from vacation.

As for Curley, she was a diversity recruiter who said she was fired for calling Google out “on [its] racist bullshit.” Both Gebru and Curley are Black women. Google told The Verge it doesn’t agree with the “way April describes her termination, but it’s not appropriate for [the company] to provide a commentary about her claims.”

Gebru’s exit caused an uproar, prompting thousands of Googlers, as well as academic, industry and civil society supporters to sign a letter calling on Google Research “to strengthen its commitment to research integrity and to unequivocally commit to supporting research that honors the commitments made in Google’s AI Principles.” The Google Ethics AI team also demanded the removal of Megan Kacholia, vice president of engineering at Google, and for Gebru’s reinstatement at a higher position. Google CEO Sundar Pichai apologized for how the company handled her departure in an internal email and pledged to investigate what happened to “identify all the points where [the company] can learn.”