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Two Google employees quit over AI researcher Timnit Gebru’s exit

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Two Google engineers have resigned from the tech giant, citing the departure late last year of prominent Black artificial intelligence researcher Timnit Gebru. The resignations are the latest salvos in an ongoing fight between the company and workers who are furious about its lack of diversity.

In a letter posted to LinkedIn dated January 5, David W. Baker, a Google director of engineering who worked on trust and safety, wrote that he was leaving the company as of January 19 after more than 16 years. Gebru’s departure, Baker wrote, “extinguished my desire to continue as a Googler.” Similarly, Vinesh Kannan, a software engineer, posted on Twitter Wednesday that he left Google this month “because of Google’s mistreatment” of Gebru and April Curley, a Black ex-Google diversity recruiter who in December tweeted that she had been fired after experiencing retaliation due to her repeatedly advocating for the company to hire qualified Black college graduates.

Kannan did not respond to a request for comment. In an interview with CNN Business, Baker said he reached a point of exhaustion in trying to improve the company’s culture.

“Someone as amazing as Timnit should be working at Google. It’s important she should be there,” he said. “And Google failed to keep her employed, period.”

A Google spokeswoman declined to comment on Kannan’s or Baker’s resignations, which were first reported by Reuters. She pointed to a previous response from the company regarding Curley that said Google doesn’t “agree with the way April describes her termination, but it’s not appropriate for us to provide a commentary about her claims.”

Until early December, when she abruptly left the company, Gebru was the co-leader of Google’s Ethical AI team. A pioneer in the research of bias and inequality in AI, she was also one of few Black employees at the company overall (3.7% of Google employees are Black, according to the company’s 2020 annual diversity report) — let alone in its AI division. The research scientist is also co-founder of the group Black in AI, which aims to increase representation of Black people in the field.

Gebru initially tweeted that she had been “immediately fired” for an email she recently sent to Google’s Brain Women and Allies internal mailing list. In the email she expressed dismay over the ongoing lack of diversity at the company and frustration over an internal process related to the review of a not-yet published research paper she coauthored.

In later tweets, Gebru clarified that no one at Google explicitly told her that she was fired. Rather, she said Google would not meet a number of her conditions for returning and accepted her resignation immediately because it felt that her email reflected “behavior that is inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager.”

Gebru’s sudden exit sparked anger among many Google employees and others in the tech industry that continues to simmer months later. CEO Sundar Pichai wrote in a memo to Google employees soon after she left that the company would investigate what happened.

Kannan tweeted Wednesday that the exits of both women “crossed a personal red line” he wrote down when he started working at Google — the red line, he wrote, was “retaliation against a teammate who stands up for something I believe in.”

“I know I gained a lot from Google, but I also gained a lot from both of their work, and they were wronged,” he wrote.

Baker wrote, “I joined a company of a few thousand people, one that recognized we had a diversity problem. And despite hiring in well over a hundred thousand new faces, we remain a company with a diversity problem.”

Since Curley and Gebru spoke out on Twitter about their experiences at Google, HBCU 20×20, a job network for graduates of historically Black colleges and universities, canceled a partnership with Google. Last week, leaders of five HBCUs met with Pichai to talk about the company’s relationship with these schools.

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