Google CEO Sundar Pichai apologized to staffers on Wednesday for the company's handling of AI ethics researcher Dr. Timnit Gebru's departure.
"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 said in a memo obtained by Axios. "I want to say how sorry I am for that, and I accept the responsibility of working to restore your trust."
The Google CEO also pledged to launch a "review" of Gebru's departure in an attempt to "identify all the points where we can learn."
Days prior to Pichai's apology, Gebru - who had been one of the 1.6% of Google's employees who are Black women - claimed she was terminated from the company shortly after sending an email regarding her disappointment in Google's approach to diversity, equity and inclusion.
Gebru's email came about after the company refused to attach her and her colleagues' names to an AI ethics paper on language models.
Google AI researcher Nicholas Le Roux, a white man, defended his ex-colleague on Twitter, arguing that the "easiest way to discriminate is to make stringent rules, then to decide when and for whom to enforce them."
“My submissions were always checked for disclosure of sensitive material, never for the quality of the literature review,” he added.
Other individuals, like former Google public relations manager William Fitzgerald, expressed their disagreement with the company's handling of the situation.
This is such a lie. It was part of my job on the Google PR team to review these papers. Typically we got so many we didn't review them in time or a researcher would just publish & we wouldn't know until afterwards. We NEVER punished people for not doing proper process. https://t.co/hNE7SOWSLS pic.twitter.com/Ic30sVgwtn— William Fitzgerald (@william_fitz) December 4, 2020
A petition pledging to "Stand With Timnit" was also launched.
“Instead of being embraced by Google as an exceptionally talented and prolific contributor, Dr. Gebru has faced defensiveness, racism, gaslighting, research censorship, and now a retaliatory firing,” the online petition read.
“In an email to Dr. Gebru’s team on the evening of December 2, 2020, Google executives claimed that she had chosen to resign. This is false. In their direct correspondence with Dr. Gebru, these executives informed her that her termination was immediate, and pointed to an email she sent to a Google Brain diversity and inclusion mailing list as pretext.”
"Don't paint me as an 'angry Black woman' for whom you need 'de-escalation strategies' for," Gebru said in a Twitter response to the email.
"...from de-escalation strategies..." De-escalation-->Replace that with leadership accountability. This statement implies that I was out of line and that their failure was NOT discriminating OR retaliating against me, NOR having me face a hostile work environment daily. 2\— Timnit Gebru (@timnitGebru) December 9, 2020
Pichai argued in his Wednesday memo that the company should “accept responsibility for the fact that a prominent Black, female leader with immense talent left Google unhappily.”