Former Google AI researcher Timnit Gebru accused Sundar Pichai of glossing over her dismissal with a non-apology designed to make the company look good

Former Google AI researcher Timnit Gebru accused Sundar Pichai of glossing over her dismissal with a non-apology designed to make the company look good
AI researcher Dr. Timnit Gebru (left) and Google CEO Sundar Pichai.Kimberly White/Getty Images/Denis Balibouse/Reuters
  • Dr. Timnit Gebru, a renowned AI ethics researcher, said on December 2 she was fired from Google. Google has maintained Gebru resigned, sparking intense employee backlash at the company.
  • Google CEO Sundar Pichai sent a memo to staff on December 9 saying he was sorry that the case "seeded doubts and led some in our community to question their place at Google."
  • "I don't consider it an apology whatsoever," Gebru said in an interview with the BBC Monday.
  • "I consider it a statement that had to be made to make them look better."

Former Google AI researcher Dr. Timnit Gebru has accused CEO Sundar Pichai of trying to gloss over her dismissal with a PR-minded non-apology.

Gebru says she was fired from the tech giant, while the company says that she resigned.

In a memo distributed to Google staff on December 9, Pichai talked about Gebru's "departure." "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," Pichai said.
Advertisement
In an interview with the BBC published Monday, Gebru said Pichai's apology was inadequate. "I don't consider it an apology whatsoever," said Gebru.

"He didn't even apologize for the company's handling of it. He said this has sowed doubts among some in our community, that they feel like they might not belong. And for that, he's sorry," Gebru said.

"It doesn't say: 'I'm sorry for the way we handled this. We were wrong. I'm sorry for what we did to her,' - nothing [...] I consider it a statement that had to be made to make them look better," she said.
Advertisement

Gebru tweeted on December 2 that she had been fired from Google after requesting more transparency around why a research paper she had co-authored on AI ethics had been rejected. Google denied firing Gebru, claiming she resigned, leading to an intense backlash inside the company. Members of Gebru's team have corroborated her version of events.

In his December 9 memo, Pichai said: "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." The company would conduct a review, he said. "We need to accept responsibility for the fact that a prominent Black, female leader with immense talent left Google unhappily," Pichai added.
Advertisement

The memo did not address the disparity between Gebru's assertion that she was fired and the company's line that she resigned.

Read more: Google's AI chief canceled a year-end gathering in light of the backlash over researcher Timnit Gebru's exit: 'A celebration doesn't seem appropriate at this time'

Gebru told the BBC she did not enjoy being in the spotlight, but felt a sense of responsibility.
Advertisement

"I thought it was better to let people know what is happening to me because my guess is maybe they thought I'd feel some sort of shame and just go quietly, and I know that there are so many other people who deal with what I've dealt with and so much worse, and suffered in silence - and they don't have the type of support that I have.

"They don't have the type of platform that I have. And I want those people to know that it happened to me too, and you're not alone, and it's not your fault. And something needs to change," she said.

"This institutional racism it's not even just limited to Google. It's most of these institutions in general, and specifically in the tech companies, are institutionally racist."
Advertisement
Do you work for Google? Got a tip? Contact this reporter at ihamilton@businessinsider.com or iahamilton@protonmail.com. Do not use a work email account.
{{}}