Monday morning, some of the world’s leaders in robotics and machine learning would meet for a virtual, exclusive invitational research workshop hosted by Google. Two invited academics did not report as scheduled: they withdrew to protest Google’s treatment of two women who said they had been unfairly dismissed from the artificial intelligence research department. A third academic who had previously received money from Google took his own position, saying he would no longer apply for its support.
Although small-scale, the boycott illustrates some of the damage to Google’s reputation due to the serious departure of Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell, a team leader working to make AI systems more ethical. The controversy has drawn new attention to the impact of technology ventures on AI research, prompting researchers inside and outside Google to question whether it distorts research on the impact of AI on society.
In December, Gebru said she was fired after resisting pressure to withdraw her name or remove it from a research article highlighting disadvantages in word processing technology. Mitchell, a co-author of the paper, was fired in February, apparently after trying to gather evidence about Gebru’s treatment at Google. This month, a leading conference on fairness and transparency in the computer, where the disputed paper was offered last week, stripped Google from his list of sponsors.
Google’s three-day event this week is called the Machine Learning and Robot Safety Workshop. Hadas Kress-Gazit, a professor of robotics at Cornell, was invited in January after Gebru left the company, but before Mitchell’s departure. Her research group is working on creating software to reliably control robots, which can protect machines and people around them. But after Google’s AI ethics controversy subsided, and the event drew closer, she began to reflect again.
On Friday morning, Kress-Gazit emailed the organizers of the event to say she would not attend because she did not want to be linked to Google research in any way. “Not only is Google’s research process and integrity being tainted, but in treating these women, it’s clear that all of the company’s diversity conversations are performative,” she writes. Kress-Gazit says she did not expect her actions to influence Google, or her own future work, but she wanted to show solidarity with Gebru and Mitchell, their team and their research agenda.
Another invitee to the event, Scott Niekum, director of a robotics lab at the University of Texas at Austin, came to a similar decision. ‘Google has shown an astonishing lack of leadership and commitment to open science, ethics and diversity in their treatment of the Ethical AI team, specifically Drs. Gebru and Mitchell, ”he wrote in his own email to the workshop organizers, asking them to convey his decision and comments to Google’s leadership.
A colleague from Niekum at UT Austin, Assistant Professor Vijay Chidambaram, who works on computer systems, tweeted in support of Kress-Gazit’s protest against Google on Friday and said he would no longer apply for Google funding. His department’s website says his work has been supported by the company in the past.
“If academia is always encouraged to look for the next payout from Google,” he wrote, “researchers can ‘continue to rationalize and excuse whatever Google does.’ He said that this attitude could force his students to find alternative sources, but that the dissolution of the company ‘is the right thing to do’. Chidambaram did not respond to requests for comment.
Google is deeply involved in computer science research around the world, especially in the field of machine learning. The company has several funding programs for graduate students and academics, including one for early career professors offering grants of up to $ 60,000.