What Really Happened When Google Ousted Timnit Gebru

The story of what actually happened in the lead-up to Gebru’s exit from Google reveals a more tortured and complex backdrop. It’s the tale of a gifted engineer who was swept up in the AI revolution before she became one of its biggest critics, a refugee who worked her way to the center of the tech industry and became determined to reform it. It’s also about a company—the world’s fifth largest—trying to regain its equilibrium after four years of scandals, controversies, and mutinies, but doing so in ways that unbalanced the ship even further.

Beyond Google, the fate of Timnit Gebru lays bare something even larger: the tensions inherent in an industry’s efforts to research the downsides of its favorite technology. In traditional sectors such as chemicals or mining, researchers who study toxicity or pollution on the corporate dime are viewed skeptically by independent experts. But in the young realm of people studying the potential harms of AI, corporate researchers are central.

Gebru’s career mirrored the rapid rise of AI fairness research, and also some of its paradoxes. Almost as soon as the field sprang up, it quickly attracted eager support from giants like Google, which sponsored conferences, handed out grants, and hired the domain’s most prominent experts. Now Gebru’s sudden ejection made her and others wonder if this research, in its domesticated form, had always been doomed to a short leash. To researchers, it sent a dangerous message: AI is largely unregulated and only getting more powerful and ubiquitous, and insiders who are forthright in studying its social harms do so at the risk of exile.

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In April 1998, two Stanford grad students named Larry Page and Sergey Brin presented an algorithm called PageRank at a conference in Australia. A month later, war broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea, setting off a two-year border conflict that left tens of thousands dead. The first event set up Google’s dominance of the internet. The second set 15-year-old Timnit Gebru on a path toward working for the future megacorp.

At the time, Gebru lived with her mother, an economist, in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Her father, an electrical engineer with a PhD, had died when she was small. Gebru enjoyed school and hanging out in cafés when she and her friends could scrape together enough pocket money. But the war changed all that. Gebru’s family was Eritrean, and some of her relatives were being deported to Eritrea and conscripted to fight against the country they had made their home.

Gebru’s mother had a visa for the United States, where Gebru’s older sisters, engineers like their father, had lived for years. But when Gebru applied for a visa, she was denied. So she went to Ireland instead, joining one of her sisters, who was there temporarily for work, while her mother went to America alone.

Reaching Ireland may have saved Gebru’s life, but it also shattered it. She called her mother and begged to be sent back to Ethiopia. “I don’t care if it’s safe or not. I can’t live here,” she said. Her new school, the culture, even the weather were alienating. Addis Ababa’s rainy season is staccato, with heavy downpours interspersed by sunshine. In Ireland, rain fell steadily for a week. As she took on the teenage challenges of new classes and bullying, larger concerns pressed down. “Am I going to be reunited with my family? What happens if the paperwork doesn’t work out?” she recalls thinking. “I felt unwanted.”

The next year, Gebru was approved to come to the US as a refugee. She reunited with her mother in Somerville, Massa­chusetts, a predominantly white suburb of Boston, where she enrolled in the local public high school—and a crash course in American racism.

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