Google Caught In Digital and Sticky Ethical Web

May 3, 2021

Google is described as an employee first company. Employees are affectionately dubbed “Googlers” and are treated to great benefits, perks, and work environment. Google, however, has a dark side. While the company culture is supposedly great, misogynistic, racist attitudes run rampant. Bloomberg via Medium highlights recent ethical violations in the article, “Google Ethical AI Group’s AI Turmoil Began Long Before Public Unraveling.”

One of the biggest ethical problems Google has dealt with is the lack of diverse information in their facial recognition datasets. This has led to facial recognition AI’s inability to recognize minority populations. If ethical problems within their technology were not enough, Google had created an Ethical AI research team headed by respected scientists Margaret Mitchell and Timnit Gebru.

Google had Gebru forcefully resign from the company in December 2020, when she refused to retract a research paper that criticized Google’s AI. Mitchell was also terminated in February 2021 on the grounds she was sending Google sensitive documents to personal accounts.

During their short tenure as Google’s Ethical AI team leads, Mitchell and Gebru witnessed a sexist and racist environment. They both noticed that women with more experience held lower job titles than men with less experience. When female employees were harassed and incidents were reported nothing was done.

Head of Google AI Jeff Dean appeared to be a supporter of Gebru and Mitchell, but while he voiced supported his actions spoke louder:

“Dean struck a skeptical and cautious note about the allegations of harassment, according to people familiar with the conversation. He said he hadn’t heard the claims and would look into the matter. He also disputed the notion that women were being systematically put in lower positions than they deserved and pushed back on the idea that Mitchell’s treatment was related to her gender. Dean and the women discussed how to create a more inclusive environment, and he said he would follow up on the other topics….

About a month after Gebru and Heller reported the claims of sexual harassment and after the lunch meeting with Gebru and Mitchell, Dean announced a significant new research initiative, and put the accused individual in charge of it, according to several people familiar with the situation. That rankled the internal whistleblowers, who feared the influence their newly empowered colleague could have on women under his tutelage.”

Google had purposely created the Ethical AI research team to bring attention to disparities and poor behavior to their attention. When Gebru and Mitchell did their job, their observations were dismissed.

Google shot itself in the foot when they fired Gebru and Mitchell, because the pair were doing their job. Because the pair questioned Google’s potential problems with Google technology and fought against sexism and racism, the company treated them as disruptive liabilities. Mitchell and Gebru’ treatment point to issues of self-regulation. Companies are internally biased, because they want to make money and not make mistakes. However, this attitude creates a lackadaisical attitude towards self-regulation and responsibility. Biased technology leads to poor consequences for minorities that could potentially ruin their lives. Is it not better to be aware of these issues, accept the problem, then fix it?

Google is only going to champion itself and not racial/gender equality.

Whitney Grace, May 3, 2021

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