Google has fired another top artificial intelligence researcher, Margaret Mitchell, in the latest escalation of internal tensions at the company following December’s controversial ouster of Timnit Gebru, a Black AI ethicist. As if the PR fire with Google’s AI ethics team didn’t have enough fuel already.
Mitchell, who formerly led the team alongside Gebru, was caught using automated scripts to comb through her work emails to find evidence of discrimination and harassment to back up Gebru’s claims, Axios reports. In January, she lost access to her corporate email after Google launched an investigation into her activity. In a statement to Reuters, Google claims Mitchell’s firing followed disciplinary recommendations by investigators and a review committee. Google said she violated the company’s code of conduct and security policies and transferred electronic files outside the company.
Mitchell announced her termination Friday evening in a tweet. When reached for comment by CNN regarding Google’s claims, she told the outlet, “I don’t know about those allegations actually. I mean most of that is news to me.”
She joined the company in 2016 as a senior research scientist and founded Google’s AI ethics team with Gebru. In the past few months, Mitchell has been openly critical of Google’s abrupt dismissal of Gebru, one of the few Black employees at the company (just 3.7% of Google’s U.S. staff are Black according to its 2020 annual diversity report). Gebru claims she was fired after raising concerns about the company’s shoddy diversity protocols and its attempt to censor research critical of its products.
Gebru’s firing “created a domino effect of trauma for me and the rest of the team, and I believe we are being increasingly punished for that trauma,” Mitchell wrote on Twitter Friday. Another leading AI researcher at the company, Alex Hanna, tweeted a screenshot that evening purportedly of an email she received from higher-ups threatening that she is next on the chopping block.
Thousands of Google employees and experts in the AI community protested Google’s decision to fire Gebru, and it’s led to increased scrutiny over the company’s AI ethics research. Now it seems internal tensions have started bubbling over as Google attempts to muzzle dissenters and hurriedly turn the page on the controversy by burying it in a flood of policy changes. Earlier this week, Google announced plans to restructure its responsible AI teams to consolidate leadership under Marian Croak, Google’s VP of engineering. Hours before Mitchell’s firing, Google reportedly sent out an internal email detailing several other new research and diversity policy changes the company’s implementing in the wake of an internal investigation into Gebru’s termination.