When Luke Stark sought money from Google in November he had no idea he’d be turning down $60,000 from the tech giant in March.
Stark, an assistant professor at Western University in Ontario, Canada, studies the social and ethical impacts of artificial intelligence. In late November, he applied for a Google Research Scholar award, a no-strings-attached research grant of up to $60,000 to support professors who are early in their careers.
He put in for the award, he said, “because of my sense at the time that Google was building a really strong, potentially industry-leading ethical AI team.”
Soon after, that feeling began to dissipate. In early December, Timnit Gebru, the co-leader of Google’s ethical AI team and a prominent Black woman in a mostly White, male field, abruptly left Google. On Wednesday, December 2, she tweeted that she had been “immediately fired” for an email she sent to an 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the ongoing lack of diversity at the company and frustration over an internal process related to the review of a then-unpublished research paper about the risks of building ever-larger AI language models — a buzzy kind of AI that is increasingly important to Google’s enormous search business.
At the time, Gebru said Google AI leadership told her to retract the paper from consideration for presentation at a conference, or remove her name from it. Google said it accepted Gebru’s resignation over a list of demands she had sent via email that needed to be met for her to continue working at the company.
Gebru’s ouster kicked off a months-long crisis for the company, including employee departures, a leadership shuffle, and an apology from Google’s CEO for how the circumstances of Gebru’s departure caused some employees to question their place there. Google conducted an internal investigation into the matter, results of which were announced on the same day the company fired Gebru’s co-team leader, Margaret Mitchell, who had been consistently critical of the company on Twitter following Gebru’s exit. (Google cited “multiple violations” of its code of conduct.)
Meanwhile, researchers outside Google, particularly in AI, have become increasingly distrustful of the company’s historically well-regarded scholarship and angry over its treatment of Gebru and Mitchell.
All of this came into sharp focus for Stark on Wednesday, March 10, when Google sent him a congratulatory note, offering him $60,000 for his proposal for a research project that would look at how companies are rolling out AI that is used to detect emotions. Stark said he immediately felt he needed to reject the award to show his support for Gebru and Mitchell, as well as those who yet remain on the ethical AI team at Google.
“My first thought was, ‘I have to turn it down’,” Stark told CNN Business.
Stark is among a growing number of people in academia who are citing the exits of Gebru and Mitchell for recent decisions to forfeit funding or opportunities provided by the company. Some AI conference organizers are rethinking having Google as a sponsor. And at least one academic who has received a big check from Google in the past has since declared he won’t seek its financial support until changes are made at the company.
“In good conscience, I can no longer accept funding from a company that treats its employees in this manner,” Vijay Chidambaram, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies storage systems, told CNN Business. Chidambaram previously received $30,000 from Google in 2018 for a research project.
The money involved is of little consequence to Google. But the widening fallout from Google’s tensions with its ethical AI team now pose a risk to the company’s reputation and stature in the AI community. This is crucial as Google battles for talent — both as employees at the company and names connected to it in the academic community.
“I think this is wider spread than even the company realizes,” Stark said.
Declining in solidarity
Despite his initial inclination, Stark didn’t immediately refuse Google’s award. He spoke to colleagues about what he planned to do — “People were supportive of whichever decision I made,” he said — before sending Google his response the following Friday. He thanked the company for the “vote of confidence” in his research, but wrote that he was “declining this award in solidarity with Drs. Gebru and Mitchell, their teammates, and all those who’ve been in similar situations”, according to emails viewed by CNN Business.
“I look forward to the possibility of collaborating with Google Research again, at such time as the organization and its leaders have reflected on their decision in this case, addressed the harms they’ve caused, and committed, in word and deed, to fostering critical research and products that support equity and justice,” Stark wrote.
He tweeted about his decision to reject the award as well, to make it public, noting that many people can’t afford to turn down such funding from Google or other companies. Stark is able to forgo the money because his department at Western University is sufficiently funded. The award from Google would have provided extra research money, he said.
“All we can do is what we can reasonably do — and this was something I felt I could,” Stark tweeted.
Gebru said she appreciated Stark’s action.