Google has fired one of its top artificial intelligence researchers, Margaret Mitchell, escalating internal turmoil at the company following the departure of Timnit Gebru, another leading figure on Google’s AI ethics team.
Mitchell, who announced her firing on Twitter, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In a statement to Reuters, Google said the firing followed a weeks-long investigation that found she moved electronic files outside the company. Google said Mitchell violated the company’s code of conduct and security policies.
Google’s ethics in the artificial intelligence research unit has been under scrutiny since December’s dismissal of Gebru, a prominent Black researcher in Silicon Valley. Gebru’s exit prompted thousands of Google workers to protest. Mitchell and Gebru co-led the ethics in artificial intelligence team for about two years.
Gebru and Mitchell, who is white, had called for more diversity among Google’s research staff and expressed concern that the company was starting to censor research critical of its products.
Gebru said Google fired her after she questioned an order not to publish a paper claiming AI that mimics language could hurt marginalized populations.
Google’s AI research director, Zoubin Ghahramani, and a company legal representative informed Mitchell’s team of her firing on Friday in a meeting called at short notice, a person familiar with the matter told Reuters. The person said little explanation was given for the dismissal. Alex Hanna, an employee at Google, said on Twitter the company was running a “smear campaign” against Mitchell and Gebru, with whom she worked closely.
Google did not immediately comment on those claims. In a statement to the Guardian, the company said: “After conducting a review of this manager’s conduct, we confirmed that there were multiple violations of our code of conduct, as well as of our security policies, which included the exfiltration of confidential business-sensitive documents and private data of other employees.”
Google has recruited top scientists with promises of research freedom, but the limits are tested as researchers increasingly write about the negative effects of technology and offer unflattering perspectives on their employer’s products.