What the Timnit Gebru incident says about all of corporate America
If you are looking for an article about oppressed races and genders, this is not it. While that may be true, that is not what the Timnit Gebru incident is about at its core. It is about how Corporate America makes decisions on resolving differences.
Marginally it is about race & gender, because in this day and age when we are trying to drive diversity, many people feel minorities should be cut a little slack to make up for all the disadvantages they have; many people feel compassion for their situation extends to going out of our way to accommodate them and treat them specially. If you the reader are one of those people, then yes, this is about race & gender.
However, if you do not believe this would happen between two white people, even white men, I strongly disagree.
I do not know Timnit, I have never met her. What I do know is that highly transparent and ethical people believe they have an obligation to be upfront and transparent with people, so other people have all the necessary information to make the decisions that need to be made, and hopefully come to the right conclusion. What such people find out the hard way is that life in the business arena is less like a friendly academic debate, and more like Queen’s Gambit. It is a chess match. You don’t tell the other player what your move is going to be, before you have made it. You don’t tell a company that has at-will-employment that you are not fully committed to working there, because the response is likely to be less than full commitment.
In one sense Timnit comes across as a prima-donna. She did not get what she wanted so she threw a tantrum. Google responded in kind, wrapped in corporate niceties of course. We love Timnit, she made such a great contribution, but unfortunately, she just wasn’t committed to working here.
Any one seen how engineering groups that are core to an organization’s mission, treat prima donna engineers? Carefully, and the more important they are, the more careful the treatment. Part of being a successful engineering manager in these situations is navigating those personalities, lest you be the one that gets fired, because the engineer throwing the tantrum may actually be more important to the company than some easily replaceable manager.
Based on this, the other thing we learn from the Timnit episode, is that AI ethics is not core to Google’s business. If Timnit was making great contributions, and ethics was core to Google’s business, this would not have happened. Believe me, some one would have tried to talk Timnit”off the ledge” before it got to this and/or, the company would have made some accommodation to her demands. Power runs in multiple directions in a company.
When there is a disagreement between two people in a company, and that disagreement is viewed as being unresolvable, then the company makes a decision that one of the two is more important than the other. The other thing that can be clear from this incident, is that Timnit was less important than someone else. Who was that someone else?
This is a tragedy for all concerned. I’m guessing that Google did not wake up one day and decide out of the blue that Timnit needed to go, they likely felt that she gave them no choice, and the desire to flex their muscles and win the war of wills, led to what happened.
It is a little bit confusing that Timnit’s paper was ok’d to go forward and then reviewed/rejected later. That’s probably something Google should look at from a process perspective, and I can only wonder if there has been some long running tension around this process. Let us not underestimate how much this process SNAFU played in this incident.
I do not believe that Google laying down the law that researchers have to follow certain guidelines to get Google’s brand uplift on their papers, is a sign that ethics are not important to Google. I do believe though that the way this went down is a sign that ethics are not core to Google. No silicon valley tech company treats the top talent, core to their business, in this way. So there are many shades of gray on the spectrum of important to not important.
What all people should understand is that their ability to impose their will on a company is influenced by:
- How core their role is to the company
- Whether the company wishes to retain them more or less than the person they are in conflict with
These influencing factors are more important to the outcome than whether someone is right, or not. It is not about right, it is about power. People should also understand that how disagreements are handled in one localized incident is not necessarily indicative of the overall company.
People should also understand that with respect to Timnit’s specific research, camera technology has long struggled with faithful reproduction of people with certain skin tones. I’m not a facial recognition expert, but it does not surprise me that facial recognition of people with certain skin tones would also be challenged.
This incident is only about race & gender to the extent that minorities should receive certain accommodations and special compassions. This incident is mostly about power, and how power is wielded in business. Timnit did not have enough power in the company to impose her will, and Google reacted as all power most often does, whether it be a business boss or a mob boss, it cut the head off the person who would not yield, and it calculated that it could do so, because that person was not core to the business; perhaps important, but not core.
Both Timnit and Google could do with out this. Google will be fine. They make many great contributions to our lives. I wish Timnit well, I hope she moves forward with passion and play to whatever comes next. Life is short. Let’s hope all those involved in image technology, whether it be digital cameras or facial recognition, take up the cause of faithful reproduction and analysis of people of all skin tones. It may not be an easy problem, but is a worthwhile endeavor; especially as we enter this season of universal love and hope.