Meredith Whittaker, faculty director at New York University’s AI Now institute, says what happened to Gebru is a reminder that, although companies like Google encourage researchers to consider themselves independent scholars, corporations prioritize the bottom line above academic norms. “It’s easy to forget, but at any moment a company can spike your work or shape it so it functions more as PR than as knowledge production in the public interest,” she says.
In an interview with Karen Hao, Gebru questions the response from Google suggesting they treat those involved in gross misconduct better.
I didn’t expect it to be in that way—like, cut off my corporate account completely. That’s so ruthless. That’s not what they do to people who’ve engaged in gross misconduct. They hand them $80 million, and they give them a nice little exit, or maybe they passive-aggressively don’t promote them, or whatever. They don’t do to the people who are actually creating a hostile workplace environment what they did to me.
And my question is: why? Is it just that the paper provides a lot of data which suggests that a core technology now used in many of Google’s products is, well, bad for the world? If that was indeed the motivation for the original dispute and decision, then it suggests that Google’s self-image as a technocratic force for societal good is now too important to be undermined by high-quality research which suggests otherwise. In which case, it suggests that there’s not that much difference between big tech companies and tobacco, oil and mining giants. They’re just corporations, doing what corporations always do.