Weekly Feature: A Profile on Timnit Gebru

April 21, 2021
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Timnit Gebru is a trailblazing AI ethics researcher, highly regarded within the AI research community. She is attributed to a groundbreaking paper that showed facial recognition to be less accurate at identifying women and people of color (making it more likely to be used in ways that discriminate against them). She also co-founded the Black in AI affinity group and has consistently championed diversity in the tech industry. Most recently, she has been at the center of a recent controversy with Google—after she left Google over tensions surrounding a paper she co-authored.

Background

Timnit was born and raised in Ethiopia; she eventually received political asylum in the United States. She earned her bachelor’s and master's degrees at Stanford University and worked at Apple, and then Microsoft, before eventually accepting a position as the co-lead of Google’s ethical AI team.

What Happened at Google

While many of the details surrounding Gebru’s departure are unclear, here’s what we know:

  • Gebru and her Google colleagues co-authored a paper titled “On the Dangers of Stochastic Parrots: Can Language Models Be Too Big?”—which laid out the risks of large language models (AIs trained on extremely large amounts of text data).
  • The paper presented the history of natural language processing, as well as an overview of these four risks:
  • Large language models involve high environmental and financial costs.
  • Gathering data from the internet inevitably trains the AIs on harmful language.
  • There is a research opportunity cost; time would be better spent in other areas.
  • Large language models are deceptive: they mimic human language without understanding it, which can contribute to the spread of misinformation.
  • Google wasn’t too happy about these findings: many contravene Google’s corporate incentives. Google executives refused to publish Gebru’s paper, stating it “didn’t meet their publishing bar”.
  • This led to conflict, and in the aftermath, Gebru says Google fired her. Google says Gebru resigned—yet either way, her departure sparked outrage from the ethical AI community. More than 1,400 Google employees signed this letter in protest of Gebru’s resignation.

Implications & Next Steps

Some have argued that Google’s actions could have “a chilling effect on the future of AI ethics research.” Given that many top experts in AI ethics work at large tech companies, misaligned incentives and a lack of scholastic openness can present immense barriers to future research.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Gebru said she doesn’t see herself working at another corporation. Instead, she aims to pursue ethical AI research within the non-profit space and build on her work with Black in AI.