Hundreds of people gathered for the first lecture at what had become the world’s most important conference on artificial intelligence — row after row of faces. Some were East Asian, a few were Indian, and a few were women. But the vast majority were white men. More than 5,500 people attended the meeting, five years ago in Barcelona, Spain.
Timnit Gebru, then a graduate student at Stanford University, remembers counting only six Black people other than herself, all of whom she knew, all of whom were men.
The homogeneous crowd crystallized for her a glaring issue. The big thinkers of tech say A.I. is the future. It will underpin everything from search engines and email to the software that drives our cars, directs the policing of our streets and helps create our vaccines.
But it is being built in a way that replicates the biases of the almost entirely male, predominantly white work force making it.
especially with the current hype and demand for people in the field,” she wrote. “The people creating the technology are a big part of the system. If many are actively excluded from its creation, this technology will benefit a few while harming a great many.”
The A.I. community buzzed about the mini-manifesto. Soon after, Dr. Gebru helped create a new organization, Black in A.I. After finishing her Ph.D., she was hired by Google.
She teamed with Margaret Mitchell, who was building a group inside Google dedicated to “ethical A.I.” Dr. Mitchell had previously worked in the research lab at Microsoft. She had grabbed attention when she told Bloomberg News in 2016 that A.I. suffered from a “sea of dudes” problem. She estimated that she had worked with hundreds of men over the previous five years and about 10 women.
said she had been fired after criticizing Google’s approach to minority hiring and, with a research paper, highlighting the harmful biases in the A.I. systems that underpin Google’s search engine and other services.
“Your life starts getting worse when you start advocating for underrepresented people,” Dr. Gebru said in an email before her firing. “You start making the other leaders upset.”
As Dr. Mitchell defended Dr. Gebru, the company removed her, too. She had searched through her own Google email account for material that would support their position and forwarded emails to another account, which somehow got her into trouble. Google declined to comment for this article.
Their departure became a point of contention for A.I. researchers and other tech workers. Some saw a giant company no longer willing to listen, too eager to get technology out the door without considering its implications. I saw an old problem — part technological and part sociological — finally breaking into the open.