Questions raised as Google fires ethical AI team founder

22 February 2021 | Melanie Mingas

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Staff scientist Margaret Mitchell has been fired from Google, the two confirmed on Friday.

According to Reuters, Mitchell (pictured right) violated the company’s code of conduct and security policies by moving electronic files outside the company, including the "confidential business-sensitive documents and private data of other employees”. The investigation began on 19 January and Mitchell announced her firing on Twitter on Friday. She has not responded to Reuters' requests for comment.

Mitchell was known to be one of the Google workers who called for greater diversity and inclusion among research staff at the company, alongside Timnit Gebru (pictured left), the scientist who gained prominence for exposing bias in facial analysis systems. The two also raised concerns that the company was starting to censor papers critical of its products and together they co-led the ethical AI team, which Mitchell established, for about two years.

Gebru was fired in December and her termination resulted in thousands of Google workers joining protests. Mitchell outlined her full concerns online, on 5 February.

Gebru said Google fired her after she questioned an order not to publish a study saying AI that mimics language could hurt marginalised populations. Mitchell, a co-author of the paper, publicly criticised the company for firing Gebru and undermining the credibility of her work.

Google employee Alex Hanna said on Twitter the company was running a “smear campaign” against Mitchell and Gebru, with whom she worked closely. Google declined to comment on Hanna’s remarks.

Reuters reported in December that Google introduced a new “sensitive topics” review last year to ensure that papers on topics such as the oil industry and content recommendation systems would not get the company into legal or regulatory trouble. Mitchell publicly expressed concern that the policy could lead to censorship.