Jeff Dean built an untouchable reputation as chief of AI at Google. Now, the backlash over a top researcher's exit has made him a target of protest.

By Hugh Langley

Just a week ago, Jeffrey Dean might have been the most popular executive at Google. By Friday, he was at the center of a firestorm that has shaken the company.

Dean, a senior vice president who oversees Google's AI business, was thrust into the firing line last Wednesday after a prominent Google AI researcher was ousted from the company. In a series of tweets, Timnit Gebru, an AI ethicist and a renowned name in her field, announced she had been fired after sending an email that accused Google of "silencing marginalized voices" to a group of employees.

The email followed the dispute over a research paper exploring bias in artificial intelligence that was co-authored by Gebru and other Google employees and submitted to an academic conference. The company subsequently asked she either retract the paper from submission or redact her name — and the names of the other Google co-authors — from the paper.

Gebru asked for further discussions over the paper, and said if Google wasn't able to provide an explanation then she would discuss her last day.

She was later informed by her manager, Google Research vice president Megan Kacholia, that she had been let go, a decision Gebru accused Dean of signing off on. Gebru says she was not given a chance to respond after Google refused to meet her conditions, while Kacholia said the email Gebru had sent to a company research group called Google Brain Women and Allies, venting her frustration at the company, was grounds to expedite her dismissal.

Dean defended these actions on Thursday in a memo to employees which was seen by Business Insider and leaked publicly. In it, Dean said the research paper "ignored too much relevant research."

A day later he shared that memo on Twitter – marking the first time Google publicly addressed Gebru's termination – adding a longer explanation as to why the paper was blocked. The research, he said, had "important gaps" that meant Google was uncomfortable putting its name on it.

But Dean's missive did not address the specifics of Gebru's terminations, which has further roiled employees and onlookers.

Two current Google employees, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not permitted to speak to the press, told Business Insider they were frustrated that Dean did not say why Gebru wasn't given a chance to discuss her resignation – a sentiment, they said, that was shared by several other Google employees. 

Dean did, however, reference the "marginalizing voices" email Gebru had sent to the Women and Allies group earlier in the week, which management had used to justify an expedited dismissal.

"I also feel badly that hundreds of you received an email just this week from Timnit telling you to stop work on critical DEI programs," wrote Dean. "Please don't. I understand the frustration about the pace of progress, but we have important work ahead and we need to keep at it."

Ethical guardrails

Dean, a revered software engineer whose talents have earned him a legendary status, joined Google in 1999 and is now responsible for a vast section of the company's empire that underpins many of its critical products.

In addition to being an SVP, he carries the prestigious title of Senior Fellow — a level 11 in the chain of engineering rankings, and an honor held only by Dean and one other Googler. He also reports directly to CEO Sundar Pichai. 

It's common to hear or read jokes about his fabled talents inside Google. Jeff Dean "facts" – joking exploits about Dean's legendary status – are commonplace among employees. "Jeff Dean can beat you at Connect 4 in three moves," for example.

Current and former employees who have spoken of Dean in conversations with Business Insider in the past have described a friendly, approachable character, one whose reputation inside Google was seemingly untarnishable.

But this week's events may change that.

The whole debacle also puts under scrutiny Google's ambitious AI efforts, something the company has staked its future on. In 2016, Sundar Pichai talked about a shift from a mobile-first to an AI-first world – but the Alphabet chief has also called for ethical guardrails around artificial intelligence.

In 2018, he published a list of AI principles, one of which was to "be socially beneficial." Earlier this year, he wrote an op-ed in the Financial Times calling for regulation around AI. 

Meanwhile, Dean has said the field of AI has a problem with inclusiveness and racism – comments that have been resurfaced by critics in light of Gebru's ousting. Gebru has published significant research in this space, including a study revealing how facial-recognition software had a higher error rate for darker-skinned people.

But following the circumstances of her exit, Google's integrity in ethical AI research, and academic freedom within corporate companies, has been thrown into question by some academics and researchers who have rallied around Gebru. As of the time of publication, more than 1,500 Googlers had signed a letter in solidarity with Gebru, calling on leadership to explain their reasoning for rejecting the research paper.

Meanwhile, as Gebru's ousting stokes divisions between Googlers and company executives, the days and weeks ahead will put Dean's management on trial.

Manu Cornet, a Google engineer famed for his comics poking fun at the company, shared a comic on Friday that took a shot at Dean and Gebru's brisk termination.

"I'm still waiting to hear more about the details of the story," Cornet told Business Insider. "But I think I had enough info to criticize the speed at which it happened."