Google CEO Sundar Pichai apologized to employees for how the company handled the exit of AI ethicist Timnit Gebru: 'I accept the responsibility of working to restore your trust'


Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai sent a memo to employees on Wednesday addressing the exit of AI ethicist Timnit Gebru, which drew criticism from inside and outside the company over the past week.

Timnit Gebru said on December 2 that she had been fired from Google following a dispute over a research paper, but Google insists she resigned. The events have caused a firestorm that has seen rank and file clash against leadership over how Gebru's exit was handled.

In the memo sent Wednesday, seen by Business Insider, Pichai apologized for how Google dealt with Gebru's termination.

"I've heard the reaction to Dr. Gebru's departure loud and clear: it seeded doubts and led some in our community to question their place at Google," Pichai wrote. "I want to say how sorry I am for that, and I accept the responsibility of working to restore your trust."

Pichai also said Google will carry out a review of the events that led to Gebru's departure and where the company could have "led a more respectful process."

"We will begin a review of what happened to identify all the points where we can learn - considering everything from de-escalation strategies to new processes we can put in place," he wrote.

Gebru said she was terminated after refusing to retract an academic paper she had co-authored with a handful of other Googlers and academics. Google said the paper didn't meet the bar for publication, so Gebru asked management to elaborate on their decision, or she would discuss a timeline for resigning. When Google refused to meet those conditions, she was told that her resignation had been accepted.

The events have rocked Google and thrown into question not only its dedication to AI ethics and academic freedom, but its commitment to diversity and inclusion. Gebru was a senior Black woman at Google who had previously criticized the company's lack of diversity. In an email sent to an employee resource group of her exit, Gebru accused Google of "silencing marginalized voices."

More than 2,000 Google employees have signed a petition in solidarity with Gebru since her termination, and have called on leadership to offer a full explanation as to why the academic paper was rejected. 

In his note on Wednesday, Pichai also acknowledged the effects that Gebru's termination has had on Google's "least represented communities" who have witnessed the handling of Gebru's exit.

"The loss has had a ripple effect through some of our least represented communities, who saw themselves and some of their experiences reflected in Dr. Gebru's," he wrote.

"It's incredibly important to me that our Black, women, and underrepresented Googlers know that we value you and you do belong at Google," wrote Pichai. "And the burden of pushing us to do better should not fall on your shoulders."

On Tuesday, some employees within the company's AI organization, as well as members of the company's Black Googler Network, were invited to watch a discussion between Google's senior AI leaders about Gebru's exit. Many of those who attended were frustrated by the answers given, and that they were not given the opportunity to ask leadership questions directly.

Here's the memo in full:

"Hi everyone,

One of the things I've been most proud of this year is how Googlers from across the company came together to address our racial equity commitments. It's hard, important work and while we're steadfast in our commitment to do better, we have a lot of learn and improve. An important piece of this is learning from our experiences like the departure of Dr. Timnit Gebru.

I've heard the reaction to Dr. Gebru's departure loud and clear: it seeded doubts and led some in our community to question their place at Google. I want to say how sorry I am for that, and I accept the responsibility of working to restore your trust.

First - we need to assess the circumstances that led up to Dr. Gebru's departure, examining where we could have improved and led a more respectful process. We will begin a review of what happened to identify all the points where we can learn - considering everything from de-escalation strategies to new processes we can put in place. Jeff and I have spoken and are fully committed to doing this. One of the best aspects of Google's engineering culture is our sincere desire to understand where things go wrong and how we can improve.

Second - we need to accept responsibility for the fact that a prominent Black, female leader with immense talent left Google unhappily. The loss has had a ripple effect through some of our least represented communities, who saw themselves and some of their experiences reflected in Dr. Gebru's. It was also keenly felt because Dr. Gebru is an expert in an important area of AI Ethics that we must continue to make progress on – progress that depends on our ability to ask ourselves challenging questions.

It's incredibly important to me that our Black, women, and underrepresented Googlers know that we value you and you do belong at Google. And the burden of pushing us to do better should not fall on your shoulders. We started a conversation together earlier this year when we announced a broad set of racial equity commitments to take a fresh look at all of our systems from hiring and leveling, to promotion and retention, and to address the need for leadership accountability across all of these steps. The events of the last week are a painful but important reminder of the progress we still need to make.

This is a top priority for me and Google leads, and I want to recommit to translating the energy that we've seen this year into real change as we move forward into 2021 and beyond. 

- Sundar"