Google is presently at the centre of a storm after it sacked one of its researchers during the first week of December. The researcher, Dr Timnit Gebru, was co-leading the Ethical AI group, who sent an email to her juniors, reflecting how biased the environment was within the AI team. Reuters has now reported that Google has instructed all its employees into research to maintain a high rate of positivity whenever they voice any opinions. Additionally, researchers working on “sensitive topics” should be prepared to face extra reviews.
According to Reuters, Google has become very strict with respect to the work done by its researchers. The reports claim that the tech giant has brought in fresh guidelines during 2019 in this aspect. It would not hesitate to conduct an extra round of review for research papers pertaining to topics that are quite touchy. The company also plans on having the research work monitored from time to time.
Apparently, all of these factors have ultimately led to the firing of Dr Gebru from the organization, who was conducting research related to the AI sector, as stated above. Going by the tweets shared by Gebru, it is quite clear that she had not resigned in the first place and was forcefully asked to go home. Gebru appeared to have had some discord with the higher authorities related to the research that she was conducting upon.
It is claimed that topics fitting within the “sensitive” category include the following: “the oil industry, China, Iran, Israel, COVID-19, home security, insurance, location data, religion, self-driving vehicles, telecoms and systems that recommend or personalize web content.”
Although one cannot disagree the fact that these topics are indeed sensitive, what is a little surprising here is the fact that researchers are being asked to watch out while working on these topics, when there are already other means of controls in place like conducting a peer review, a thorough check by the board of ethics on such papers and many other such research controls which are a norm. A researcher working for the tech giant stated that such stringent actions from the company could mean the entire organization facing grave problems related to censorship.
Well, these issues are indeed grave. However, one must not forget the main issue faced by researchers. Quite a lot of important research is being conducted under the support of those organizations who can choose on whether to publish these research papers or not. Undoubtedly, major research firms have been there for quite some time now. However, organizations like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple and many more such biggies have gone a long way within the AI sector. All of these organizations are of the opinion that their usefulness quotient is quite high. Therefore, they normally do not tend to accept any sort of criticism coming their way when it comes to technologies that invite tremendous profits.
Regarding the sacking of Dr Gebru, Google claims that it would be conducting a thorough investigation in this regard.