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Google investigating A.I. researcher, AWU concerned

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Google employee’s newly-formed union, known as the Alphabet Workers Union, said it is concerned over Google’s decision to lock Margaret Mitchell, a senior AI ethics researcher, out of her account.

Google locked Mitchell out of her account after it found she was downloading material related to Timnit Gebru, another AI ethics researcher who was forced to leave the company early last month.

The news was first reported Wednesday by Axios, which said Google was investigating Mitchell’s recent actions. Mitchell was reportedly using automated scripts to look through her messages to find examples of discriminatory treatment of Gebru before she was locked out of her account.

“The Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) is concerned by the suspension of the corporate access of Margaret Mitchell, AWU member and lead of the Ethical AI team,” the union wrote in a statement. “This suspension comes on the heels of Google’s firing of former co-lead Timnit Gebru; together these are an attack on the people who are trying to make Google’s technology more ethical.”

Google did not immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment, but a spokesperson told Axios: “Our security systems automatically lock an employee’s corporate account when they detect that the account is at risk of compromise due to credential problems or when an automated rule involving the handling of sensitive data has been triggered.”

They added: “In this instance, yesterday our systems detected that an account had exfiltrated thousands of files and shared them with multiple external accounts. We explained this to the employee earlier today.”

Timnit Gebru’s departure

Gebru, a well-known artificial intelligence researcher and technical co-lead of Google’s Ethical AI team, tweeted on Dec. 3 that Google fired her over a disagreement about a research paper that scrutinized bias in artificial intelligence. The researcher, who had been outspoken about the company’s treatment of Black employees, claimed the treatment was indicative of a broader pattern at Google. It led to a wave of support from across the industry, including a petition signed by thousands of Google employees and industry peers.

Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai emailed employees, apologizing for distrust sown in the company and the industry amid Gebru’s departure, while pledging the company would launch a “review” of what went wrong.

Roughly a week later, Google’s Ethical AI team sent Google executives a list of demands to “rebuild trust” following Gebru’s removal from the company.

The team, which states it advises on research, product and policy, wrote a six-page letter to Pichai, AI chief Jeff Dean and an engineering Vice President Megan Kacholia. The letter, titled “The Future of Ethical AI at Google Research” and seen by CNBC, lists demands of executives, including removing Kacholia from the group’s reporting structure, abstaining from retaliation, and reinstating Gebru at a higher level.

Who is Margaret Mitchell?

Mitchell founded Google’s Ethical AI team and is one of the co-leads. The AWU described her as a “critical member” of academic and industry communities around the ethical production of AI. She has been with Google for just over four years and is based in Seattle, according to LinkedIn. 

“Regardless of the outcome of the company’s investigation, the ongoing targeting of leaders in this organization calls into question Google’s commitment to ethics — in AI and in their business practices,” said the AWU. “Many members of the ethical AI team are AWU members and the membership of our union recognizes the crucial work that they do and stands in solidarity with them in this moment.”

Referring to Google’s statement to Axios, the AWU said it marked a “notable departure from Google’s typical practice of refusing to comment on personnel matters.”

The AWU announced its launch on Jan. 4. Executive Chair Parul Koul and Vice Chair Chewy Shaw co-authored a piece in The New York Times titled: “We built Google. This is not the company we want to work for.”

It made its first stance on Jan. 7, calling on YouTube executives to take stronger action against former President Donald Trump.

The union criticized Google-owned YouTube for not banning Trump’s account from the platform after the pro-Trump riots in Washington, D.C., which resulted in several deaths and scores of injuries. The group called the company’s decision to reactively remove his videos “lackluster” and said the company should ban his account.

— Additional reporting by CNBC’s Jennifer Elias.

 





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