Google’s seemingly never-ending AI ethics saga took another turn last week when the company fired Margaret Mitchell, the founder and former co-lead of its ethical AI team. The ousting occurred just two months after the controversial dismissal of its other co-lead, Timnit Gebru, a scientist known for her work in exposing bias in facial recognition systems.
It’s very clear that Google is trying to end the controversy over its ethical artificial intelligence (AI) team, but it would be an understatement to say that it’s not going well.
Now you might ask yourself, why is this such a big deal? People get fired all the time. However, in this case it’s not that simple and there are several reasons for why this is a PR nightmare that will have long-term consequences for Google.
Gebru’s dismissal was reportedly due to two events. First, she objected when Google ordered her to retract a research paper on encoded bias and the environmental costs of large language models, which are key to Google’s business model. Second, she sent an internal email criticizing Google for censorship and its diversity efforts. Mitchell was fired for publicly criticizing Google for the dismissal of Gebru and for looking for correspondence related to Gebru’s removal.
Lead by example – don’t be evil
ESG (environmental, social, and governance) issues are, according to GlobalData, the most important theme in 2021. Citizens, governments, and the media are turning the spotlight on corporations and demanding action. Google has for long been considered a leader within the ESG space, its former corporate mantra “don’t be evil” was for long synonymous with the company.
There is no denying that Gebru and Mitchell’s departure has and will be damaging for Google’s reputation. The support for the two AI ethicists has been nearly unanimous. Google employees and industry leaders alike have voiced their support. The freedom to publish findings, even if they are controversial, is paramount for anyone that is dealing with AI ethics. Being forced to adhere to corporate interest over the public good has long been a sticky point, especially in the US, and now Google finds itself at the center of this discussion. To make things worse, Gebru is one of few black women in AI, sparking further concerns about Google’s diversity efforts.
Who would want Google’s AI ethics services now?
Google is considered to be the leading provider of AI, with most of its products incorporating AI in one way or another. Many companies are seeking out their expertise and services. Google Cloud and its related AI capabilities are important for its bottom-line. In turn, AI ethics is exceedingly important for the future of AI, no company can afford to promote bias.
In August 2020, Google announced that they plan to launch new AI ethics services before the end of the year, offering advice on issues like spotting racial bias and developing ethical guidelines that govern AI projects.
Needless to say, there is little to suggest that this service would be successful now. What’s more, customers may start wondering if Google is the right partner for their AI workloads and instead go with services from that of Amazon, Microsoft, or IBM. The competition within this segment is fierce.
Google will face an uphill battle to retain trust
This whole ordeal can be seen as an endless string of bad decisions on Google’s part. According to Bank of America, 92% of Gen Z consumers would switch to a brand that supports ESG issues versus one that does not.
A strong focus on ESG issues also helps attract new talent and, most importantly, is important for investors. Google has violated virtually every area of ESG in the last couple of months, especially with respect to corporate governance and diversity and inclusion.
Right before Gebru’s firing, MSCI, a ratings agency, downgraded Google’s ESG rating to BBB (average) from AA (leader). Given its recent ESG blunders, further downgrades would not be unexpected. Google now face a big challenge, to restore confidence in its AI ethics research and win back the trust of their customers, employees, and investors.