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Google reshuffles AI team leadership after researcher’s controversial departure

Google is making changes to the leadership of its responsible artificial intelligence efforts months after the contentious departure of prominent Black artificial intelligence researcher Timnit Gebru rattled the company.

The tech giant said in a blog post Thursday that Marian Croak, a Black woman who has been a vice president at the company for six years working on a range of projects including getting public Wi-Fi on railroads in India, will run a new center focused on responsible AI within Google Research. The announcement, which included a video interview with Croak, touted her decades of tech experience and patents for technologies such as Voice over IP.

Croak will report to Jeff Dean, Google’s head of AI. Ten teams centered around AI ethics, fairness, and accessibility — including the Ethical AI team, which Gebru had previously helped lead — will report to her.

The move was first reported by Bloomberg late Wednesday.

In the blog post, Croak pointed out how new the field of ethical AI is — it has been on many AI researchers’ radar screens for only a handful of years. She noted there is “quite a lot of conflict” currently in the field, such as over standardizing definitions of “fairness” or “safety,” which can be polarizing.

“And what I’d like to do is have people have the conversation in a more diplomatic way, perhaps, than we’re having it now, so that we can truly advance this field,” she said. She also plans to undertake a “critical assessment of all the AI systems that are deployed or currently being designed and try to understand where the gaps are” and work within Google to diminish “potential harms.”

Until early December, when she abruptly left the company, Gebru was the co-leader of Google’s Ethical AI team. A pioneer in the research of bias and inequality in AI, she was also one of few Black employees at the company overall (3.7% of Google employees are Black, according to the company’s 2020 annual diversity report). The research scientist is also co-founder of the group Black in AI, which aims to increase representation of Black people in the field.

Gebru initially tweeted that she had been “immediately fired” for an email she had recently sent to Google’s Brain Women and Allies internal mailing list. In the email she expressed dismay over the ongoing lack of diversity at the company and frustration over an internal process related to the review of a not-yet published research paper she coauthored. Dean said in an email to Google Research employees (which he also posted publicly) that the paper in question was not submitted for internal review far enough in advance of its deadline, and that it “didn’t meet our bar for publication.”

In later tweets, Gebru clarified that no one at Google explicitly told her that she was fired. Rather, she said Google would not meet a number of her conditions for returning and accepted her resignation immediately because it felt that her email reflected “behavior that is inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager.”

Gebru’s sudden exit sparked anger among many Google employees and others in the tech industry that continues to simmer months later, often exhibited via emotional posts on Twitter. CEO Sundar Pichai wrote in a memo to Google employees soon after she left that the company would investigate what happened.

Earlier this month, two Google employees quit over Gebru’s exit, and Margaret Mitchell, a Google researcher who until Gebru’s abrupt departure co-led the group with her, was put on administrative leave in January, as she confirmed to CNN Business at the time.

A Google spokeswoman had no comment regarding Croak’s new position beyond pointing CNN Business to the company’s blog post.

Gebru could not be immediately reached for comment, but in a tweet thread Wednesday night she wrote that the announcement of Croak, another Black woman, makes it appear “as if we’re all interchangeable” and called the company’s moves since her departure “beyond gaslighting.”

“I don’t have enough words to express how awful this is right now,” she wrote.

A Google employee familiar with the situation who requested anonymity due to privacy concerns said that they and other employees initially learned Croak’s appointment from the Bloomberg piece late Wednesday, rather than from Google itself, though a meeting on Thursday confirmed the change. The employee said morale in the ethical AI group is “pretty low.”

“I’m just really, really upset,” the employee said.

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