Academic freedom with Goog

Just saw NPR news about Gebru being fired/resigning for reason related to publication dispute with Google the company. Some many number of people signed letter to ask for transparency and reconsideration.

Honestly, HR is not the most customer friendly or innovative department of silicone valley companies—on average. There are certainly awesome HR individuals and HR leaders that I’ve encountered, but there surely are some seriously uncaring individuals, senior leaders and policies that acted inhumanely and unreasonably. This quotation from Gebru, as published by a very sympathetic review in the Washington Post, is something that perhaps most minorities can write with significant degree of sincerity:

Gebru recounted her most recent experience in the email as an example of why she had given up on advocating for diversity inside Google. “[S]top writing your documents because it doesn’t make a difference,” she wrote. “[Y]our life gets worse when you start advocating for underrepresented people, you start making the other leaders upset when they don’t want to give you good ratings during calibration

This advocacy she speaks of represent a swath of disparate and dissenting opinions regarding various modes in which minorities are treated. When “reasoning” with the employee through normal management chain fails, the mighty HR steps in and uses company business related performance reviews (known as calibrations at Google) to enforce the company’s stance. The only exception here is that one of Gebru’s job is to improve minority inclusion at Google—by losing her own inclusion she has created a self-fulfilling failure to perform her duties to the company. Also, her declaration that writing documents is useless is self defeating as well. As a scientist, a big part of her work will be to document and publish her learnings and believes. Quit writing documents is quitting the job. Sigh… the troubles we have in the computer industry.

It is certainly not surprising that Gebru had to separate from Google. Recall recent episode of her very civilized and reasonable discussion with LeCunn on Twitter. Sadly, I empathize with both of them. Being a minority who likes to think about the reasonable, I definitely feel her frustration from lack of acknowledgement and consideration. But I also feel the scientific curiosity that I imagine LeCunn has for the science.

The problem here is what we do not know. 3 hours after the NPR articles published, I do not see the paper whose quality is in dispute on pre-publication sites. It is highly unlikely that Google will respond publicly to explain why it does not want Gebru at al. to talk about why Google’s core technology is inherently racist and environmentally damaging.

The next day, Jeff Dean published a google doc presenting his view of this incident. One obvious takeaway from Dean’s postmortem write up is that, somewhere in some of her communications, Gebru challenged the mystery, anonymity and opacity of “the official Google internal review process” that assesses scientific qualifications of prospective publications. Her challenge may have been that the review process has excessive and unaudited (white/discriminative and profit-only focused) power. Google apparently has kept that process a secret even to its subjects and in light of this very public revolt.

Interestingly, many academicians and institutions come out in support of Gebru. Some many dozens of hours later MIT tech review published writing based on draft of the paper. MIT seems to also take the position that there is unclear and inconsistent behavior on the part of Google.

The concerning problem is Google’s monopoly. If you look carefully, the organizers of the public challenge letter to Google uses a Gmail address. Google’s infrastructure powers so many silicone valley companies that if there were any unconscious systemic or cultural bias, they would be ingrained in the business infrastructure that every silicone valley company depends on. How do you learn about academic freedom or ethics or AI? Well, you will undoubtedly Google it. Leaders of startups are recruited from Google to bring their magic Google mojo to power new startups. Software is taken, for free, from Google because others do not have the tech… Lint from under the nails of the likes of Dean become treasures of the industry when they are unearthed from Google.

This is not a company. This is a center of a civilization. While it is very brave for a few researchers to stand up to it to demand something, the outcome and benefit of this divisive exercise is not clear at all. The signatories of the complaint letter certainly cannot all resign from their jobs under leads who wishes to uphold the values and methods that worked so great at Google.

My firm belief is that we need to build more common ground by working on creating the common ground. We need for people of all kinds to come closer and closer to discuss and improve shared core principles. And I definitely mean that the shared principles are truly shared: when presented with similar situation, different people owning the same principles react and decide essentially for the same reasons.

Despite our biological similarities, despite our common humanity, common ground does not come for free. Despite our shared computer protocols for global exchange of information. All that needs to be said must still be said to build understanding. Demands for apologies and submission to a point of view, while righteous to do for the righteous, doesn’t really build common ground, it doesn’t improve shared understandings.

But I will always end my commentary on this subject by saying that my people, my ancestors were not enslaved for centuries. My direct ancestors had not had the pleasure of being subjects or objects of European men. My parents were not firehosed or beaten to shot or burned or segregated for the color of their skin. I will humbly acknowledge that I have lesser cultural and genetic sensitivity and immunity to racism and imperialism. This leaves me with a gaping chasm of doubt about my views regarding the forgoing news. Maybe I really don’t know how bad things really are and what radical means of resistance or revolution are required for a true change for the better.


A week later, some big wigs have weighed in. One unavoidable observation is that University of Washington prof is taking Jeff Dean’s side. Perhaps Dean’s matriculation there had this kind of politics. behind it as well?!

Here is one question is if you were behind the veil of ignorance, and you don’t know if you are minority or not, you don’t know if you’re rich or not and you don’t know if you have knowledge or not, would you:

  • Want to work with someone like Gebru or Dean.
  • Would you want to manage Gebru or Dean?
  • Would you want to be managed by Gebru or Dean?
  • Would you cite Gebru or Dean regarding the safety and ethics of Google inc taking on the same position as their paper?
  • Would you follow either one’s leadership in terms of ethics or social justice.

I cannot imagine myself wanting to be any where near either of these two characters. I would probably have to cite both opposing opinions since BOTH of them have knowledge about the matter far beyond my cognition and experience. But honestly, I do have to factor into consideration that Dean is really protecting a possibly very evil industry that he was instrumental in creating. I also must factor into the citation that Gebru is highly leveraged in the Identity Politics market. One cannot conscientiously discuss the very polarizing political topic without acknowledging these objectively existing aspects of these characters. In either case, although I fear for my own personal safety and sanity to come into proximity of these people, I do have to say that they are highly valuable assets of our society. Their existence enriches us all, and quite possibly quantified in similar orders of magnitude. IMMHO, this is great!

… some time later… 🎇 The formation of a minority union is a nice touch. Hope to see more…

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