Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai has apologized to employees in an internal memo for the outrage sparked when Google terminated renowned AI researcher Timnit Gebru, and stated he will launch a review of what went wrong.
“I’ve heard the reaction to Dr. Gebru’s departure loud and clear: it seeded doubts and led some in our community to question their place at Google,” he stated in a copy of the memo CNBC has seen. “I want to say how sorry I am for that, and I accept the responsibility of working to restore your trust.”
Pichai’s note comes one week after Gebru, a well-known artificial intelligence researcher and technical co-lead of Google’s Ethical AI team, tweeted that Google fired her over a disagreement about a research paper that scrutinized bias in artificial intelligence. Gebru, who had been outspoken about the company’s treatment of Black employees, claimed the treatment was indicative of a broader pattern at Google. Her dismissal set off a firestorm of support across the industry and a petition signed by thousands of Google employees and industry peers.
The incident encompasses four topics that have aroused controversy at the company in recent years: Ethical use of artificial intelligence, fair treatment of women, race, and internal transparency. It’s the biggest test of how CEO Sundar Pichai deals with employee unrest since founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin left the company about a year ago.
In Wednesday’s email, Pichai said the company will first need to “assess the circumstances that led up to Dr. Gebru’s departure, examining where we could have improved and led a more respectful process”.
Pichai apologized for the backlash caused by the termination of Gebru, one of Google’s few Black leaders.
Pichai said, “We need to accept responsibility for the fact that a prominent Black, female leader with immense talent left Google unhappily.” He added, “This loss has had a ripple effect through some of our least represented communities, who saw themselves and some of their experiences reflected in Dr. Gebru’s.”
In an email Gebru sent before her dismissal, she noted that Black employees at the company felt like their concerns were not taken seriously. “We just had a Black research all-hands with such an emotional show of exasperation,” Gebru wrote. “There is zero accountability.”
After the George Floyd protests in summer 2020, Pichai promised to address Black employees’ concerns, adding that the company would commit $175 million toward supporting Black businesses and increase “underrepresented” people in its leadership by 30% by 2025. Executives including AI chief Jeff Dean publicly promised to stand against discriminatory treatment, which can be subtle.
Employees have requested more clarity and transparency when it comes to the company’s June commitments to racial equity and retention.
Google declined comment beyond the memo.
Gebru did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but posted on Twitter, “Don’t paint me as an ‘angry Black woman’ for whom you need ‘de-escalation strategies’ for…Take responsibility for your toxic leaders, HR, Legal and other entities who harass and discriminate against people like me and protect toxicity.”
Here is Pichai’s memo in full:
One of the things I’ve been most proud of this year is how Googlers from across the company came together to address our racial equity commitments. It’s hard, important work, and while we’re steadfast in our commitment to do better, we have a lot to learn and improve. An important piece of this is learning from our experiences like the departure of Dr. Timnit Gebru.
I’ve heard the reaction to Dr. Gebru’s departure loud and clear: it seeded doubts and led some in our community to question their place at Google. I want to say how sorry I am for that, and I accept the responsibility of working to restore your trust.
First – we need to assess the circumstances that led up to Dr. Gebru’s departure, examining where we could have improved and led a more respectful process. We will begin a review of what happened to identify all the points where we can learn — considering everything from de-escalation strategies to new processes we can put in place. Jeff and I have spoken and are fully committed to doing this. One of the best aspects of Google’s engineering culture is our sincere desire to understand where things go wrong and how we can improve.
Second – we need to accept responsibility for the fact that a prominent Black, female leader with immense talent left Google unhappily. This loss has had a ripple effect through some of our least represented communities, who saw themselves and some of their experiences reflected in Dr. Gebru’s. It was also keenly felt because Dr. Gebru is an expert in an important area of AI Ethics that we must continue to make progress on — progress that depends on our ability to ask ourselves challenging questions.
It’s incredibly important to me that our Black, women, and underrepresented Googlers know that we value you and you do belong at Google. And the burden of pushing us to do better should not fall on your shoulders. We started a conversation together earlier this year when we announced a broad set of racial equity commitments to take a fresh look at all of our systems from hiring and leveling, to promotion and retention, and to address the need for leadership accountability across all of these steps. The events of the last week are a painful but important reminder of the progress we still need to make.
This is a top priority for me and Google leads, and I want to recommit to translating the energy that we’ve seen this year into real change as we move forward into 2021 and beyond.
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