Conference suspends Google sponsorship after ethics experts’ exit

Departures of Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell has prompted academics to ask if they should reconsider links with the technology giant

March 8, 2021
Google began as a research project by two Stanford University PhD students

A major interdisciplinary conference for research into algorithms has suspended Google as a sponsor after the technology giant allegedly forced out two of its artificial intelligence scholars.

The exit of Timnit Gebru in December, followed in February by Margaret Mitchell, both senior figures in Google’s ethical AI team, prompted a wave of criticism by academics who argue that universities and conferences should urgently rethink their ties with Google.

Following the controversy, the Association for Computing Machinery Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency (ACM FAccT), held online, suspended the technology firm as a sponsor.

Michael Ekstrand, a computer science assistant professor at Boise State University and one of those organising the conference, said the event’s executive committee had “concluded it was in the best interests of the community”, and in alignment with the conference’s strategic plan, to “pause the sponsorship relationship while we revisit our sponsorship policy for next year”.

Asked whether the tech giant could be reinstated next year, he told Times Higher Education that “we will be revisiting the sponsorship policy in advance of next year’s conference, and Google will be on equal footing with any other organisation to be considered as a sponsor under the terms of the policy”.

The decision is the first tentative sign of an academic backlash against Google following the exit of two of its most outspoken AI researchers.

Although the details are disputed, Dr Gebru and Dr Mitchell departed after warning of the risks of artificial intelligence and Google’s record on diversity.

Dr Gebru has said she was fired by the company in December after refusing to retract or remove her name from a research paper that raised ethical issues about the use of large-scale AI language models, used by Google in some of its products.

The company has said that she was not fired but resigned, and the firm’s head of AI has said the paper “ignored too much relevant research” and failed to include ways the problems it warned of could be mitigated.

But Dr Gebru claimed that Google was trying to censor uncomfortable research, and nearly 2,700 Google employees, plus thousands more supporters in academia and industry, have signed a petition in support, stating that “research integrity can no longer be taken for granted in Google’s corporate research environment”. Google launched a review after her departure, and has reportedly changed its diversity hiring and research publication policies as a result.

Dr Mitchell vocally supported Dr Gebru on Twitter – and criticised Google’s record on diversity – until she too was fired in mid-February.

A Google spokeswoman said: “After conducting a review of this manager’s conduct, we confirmed that there were multiple violations of our code of conduct, as well as of our security policies, which included the exfiltration of confidential business-sensitive documents and private data of other employees.”

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Google whacked: conference suspends company’s sponsorship after ethics experts’ exit

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