The Firing of Google AI Ethicist Sparks Debate

April 21, 2021

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s happened again: Google has fired yet another one of its top AI Ethics researchers. On Friday, the company announced that they had fired Margaret Mitchell, the founder, and co-head, of its artificial intelligence ethics unit. The announcement comes three months after the controversial departure of Timnit Gebru, another senior figure in Google’s ethics unit.

Why was Mitchell fired?

Google claims that Mitchell violated the company’s code of conduct and security policies, yet there is speculation as to the circumstances and severity of the firing.

What are people saying?

Though many details surrounding the firing remain unknown or vague, this news has sparked a discussion over the function and necessity of AI ethics boards at tech companies, with opinions ranging from some recognizing the importance of evaluating the social effects of AI systems to others viewing it as “a way for humanities types to wedge themselves into a hot, high paying field.”

Users of Hacker News, a social news aggregator that focuses on computer science topics, have had no shortage of opinions on the necessity of AI ethics in the tech industry:

  • “Some of these ‘AI ethics researchers’ seem like wingnuts, and their profession appears to serve more of a PR purpose than a business purpose. What am I missing? Why are they so essential? Are these people the canaries in the coal mine, or do they simply exist because of paranoia and political correctness?”
  • “I think it's unwise to minimize the impact and significance of AI at this time - this is the same sort of thinking that prevented proactive and effective management of Social Networking and Big Data technologies.”
  • “I think most of the ‘AI ethics’ thing is two things: first, for people that are actual AI practitioners, it makes ‘AI’ seem a lot more powerful and interesting than it is. I think AI is a small part of the example problems you mentioned. Second, it's a way for humanities types to wedge themselves into a hot, high paying field.”

RAISO’s Take

Here at RAISO, we think it is extremely important to understand the social, political, and economic effects AI systems can have on our society. We believe it is vital for people to be educated and think critically about these systems, especially as they become increasingly integrated into our daily lives.

As the reach of AI continues to expand, it is extremely important to develop these systems equitably, ethically, and responsibly.