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Black female scientist Timnit Gebru fired - the end of Google as a top AI research institution?

Mostapha Benhenda
December 7th, 2020 · 3 min read

Ethiopian-American Timnit Gebru, a researcher in AI and ethics, got fired from Google, sending shockwaves on Twitter and beyond.

She performed her job as an ethicist until the end, by uncovering many ethical flaws pervasive in the Google organization. In a matter of days, the Google brand no longer was associated with a cool place to do things that matter, but instead, Google became the symbol of a surprising cocktail of white Supremacism and dark Stalinism.

Google: a new incarnation of white Supremacism?

Simple question: if you were minoritized (Black, Woman, or other), would Google remain your dream employer?

No longer. With this PR disaster, Google now looks more like a pre-war Southern plantation, with Jeff Dean operating as the slave owner (despite his otherwise brilliant career) harvesting racially biased user data, and polluting the atmosphere in the process.

Master Jeff ruthlessly kicked out his ‘house negro’ Timnit, at the moment when she started to ask for the white privilege of academic freedom. She was rebellious against her subaltern status within the plantation, and got punished.

Timnit was hired to represent Google as a black female icon, a rare voice in AI, able to generate sophisticated PR for them, aka “ethics”. Timnit had the ideal profile to demonstrate that Google had the capacity to self-regulate. Her job was to serve as a moat against intrusions from politicians in Washington DC, who are working hard to regulate Big Tech from the outside, by the full force of law.

For example, who would you appoint to represent Google in front of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Jeff or Timnit? Timnit. Let them fight each other. I bet the Bronx girl would be easily handled by the Ethiopian girl, while Jeff clearly lacks experience at this exercise. At Google, smoke screens are cool jobs that matter.

The message from the Google plantation was that they didn’t need a new Abraham Lincoln in Washington DC to meddle in their business. They already had better at home: Timnit Gebru.

However, Timnit took her role too seriously. She wanted to breathe her ideas fully, a kind of intellectual George Floyd. She was a conscientious Googler, and she wanted to over-deliver. As a cultured person, Timnit understood that without the freedom to blame, there were no flattering praise. But ultimately, her PR work came across as too sophisticated for Master Jeff’s primitive mentality. The political game was becoming too subtle for those irremediably stupid white men. By the way, we have compassion for Karen.

This description might seem exaggerated, but if you are the next Timnit Gebru, do you really want to experience the truth from inside that gulag? Or better not waste time in such an ethically immature organization, and look elsewhere?

As the American civil rights activist Malcolm X explained, you might prefer to remain a “field negro”, or just find another house…

Google Research: a Stalinist propaganda machine?

Even if you are a pro-Trump white male, you should still care about this drama queen playing the race card.

Now, you will have to deal with jokes and sarcasm from your peers in academia, who might laugh at “PubApprove”, the Orwellian internal review process of Google’s Ministry of Truth.

Few people heard about this Stalinist process before. Great job, Timnit.

As a Googler, you could still try to defend your research by explaining how your white privilege allows you to work freely, and to skip Google’s censorship, but that’s still embarrassing.

However, on Twitter, some white Googlers kinda tried:

Some academics take the matter more seriously, and promise to censor back Google, by boycotting their submissions until they sort out this mess:

The NeurIPS 2020 conference will be fun. Google is platinum sponsor. Master Jeff couldn’t choose a better timing. A true Master Chef.

Will Master Jeff be the fuse of this controversy? It’s a pity, he had more elegant ways to retire, after all his contributions to the field. HR is cruel for everyone.

At the end, remaining Googlers will challenge their company far beyond DEI topics.

Some years ago, I wrote about how AI startups can disrupt the Google giant. Now his feet are crumbling more than ever.

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