By Rob Copeland and Parmy Olson
Alphabet Inc. Chief Executive Sundar Pichai has bet big on
artificial intelligence as central to the company's future,
investing billions of dollars to embed the technology in the
conglomerate's disparate divisions. Now, it is one of his trickiest
Over the past 18 months, Google's parent has waded through one
controversy after another involving its top researchers and
executives in the field.
In the most high-profile incident, last month Google parted ways
with a prominent AI researcher, Timnit Gebru, after she turned in
studies critical of the company's approach to AI and complained to
colleagues about its diversity efforts. Her research findings
concluded that Google wasn't careful enough in deploying such
powerful technology and was callous about the environmental impact
of building supercomputers.
Mr. Pichai pledged an investigation into the circumstances
around her departure and said he would seek to restore trust. Ms.
Gebru's boss, Jeff Dean, told employees that he determined her
research was insufficiently rigorous.
Nearly 2,700 Google employees have since signed a public letter
that says Ms. Gebru's departure "heralds danger for people working
for ethical and just AI -- especially Black people and People of
Color -- across Google."
Last week, Google said it was investigating the company's
co-head of ethical AI, Margaret Mitchell, for allegedly downloading
and sharing internal documents with people outside the company. Ms.
Mitchell, who has criticized Mr. Pichai on Twitter for his handling
of diversity issues, didn't respond to requests for comment.
Alphabet's approach to AI is closely watched because the
conglomerate is widely seen as the industry leader in sponsoring
research -- both internal and external -- and developing new
applications for the technology, ranging from smart speakers to
virtual assistants. The nascent field has raised complex questions
about the growing influence of computer algorithms in a wide range
of public and private life.
Google has sought to position itself as a standard-bearer for
ethical AI. "History is full of examples about how technology's
virtues aren't guaranteed," Mr. Pichai said in remarks to a
Brussels think tank last week. "While AI promises enormous benefits
for Europe and the world, there are real concerns about the
potential negative consequences."
Google's push to advance in AI through acquisition has also
added to its management challenges. In a previously unreported
move, Mustafa Suleyman, co-founder of Google's London-based
artificial-intelligence arm, DeepMind, was stripped in late 2019 of
most management responsibilities after complaints that he bullied
staff, according to people familiar with the matter.
DeepMind, which Google bought in 2014, hired an outside law firm
to conduct an independent probe into the complaints. At the end of
2019, Mr. Suleyman was moved to a different executive role within
the AI team at Google.
DeepMind and Google, in a joint statement, confirmed the
investigation into Mr. Suleyman's behavior and declined to say what
it found. The statement said that as a result of the probe Mr.
Suleyman "undertook professional development training to address
areas of concern, which continues, and is not managing large
teams." The companies said that in Mr. Suleyman's current Google
role, as vice president of artificial-intelligence policy, "he
makes valued contributions on AI policy and regulation."
In response to questions from The Wall Street Journal, Mr.
Suleyman said that he "accepted feedback that, as a co-founder at
DeepMind, I drove people too hard and at times my management style
was not constructive." He added, "I apologize unequivocally to
those who were affected."
Mr. Suleyman's appointment to a high-profile role at Google
bothered some DeepMind staff, as did a tweet from Mr. Dean
welcoming him to his new role at Google, according to current and
"I'm looking forward to working with you more closely," Mr. Dean
wrote in the tweet.
Unlike in Google search, in which artificial intelligence is
employed to reorganize and resurface existing public information,
DeepMind has focused largely on health issues, such as crunching
vast amounts of patient data to figure out new ways to treat
DeepMind has struggled to meet financial expectations. The unit
had a loss of $649 million in 2019, according to a U.K. filing last
month. Google forgave more than $1 billion of loans to the unit
over the same period, the filing indicates.
Google has tried at various times to construct broader oversight
of its artificial-intelligence projects, with mixed success.
A DeepMind independent review board, meant to scrutinize the
unit and produce a public annual report, disbanded in late 2018
after board members chafed at what they said was incomplete access
to DeepMind's research and strategic plans.
Months later, an external AI ethics council created by Google
was disbanded after a week, following an employee petition and
other protests about right-leaning board members. A Google
spokesman said at the time that the company would "find different
ways of getting outside opinions on these topics."
Google's artificial-intelligence efforts date back at least a
decade, and the area has been a stand-alone division under Mr. Dean
since 2017. Mr. Pichai, in announcing the new structure that year,
said that AI would be central to the company's strategy and
operations, with advanced computing -- also called machine learning
-- threaded throughout the company.
University of Washington computer-science professor Pedro
Domingos said Google has been well aware of the many pitfalls
associated with AI. He remembers Alphabet board chairman John
Hennessy in a chat several years ago describing his biggest fears
as the search giant intensified its push in the field.
Mr. Domingos says Mr. Hennessy told him that if anything went
wrong with AI -- even at other companies -- Google would be
"We are one misstep away from everything blowing up in our
faces," Mr. Hennessy said, according to Mr. Domingos. Mr. Hennessy
said he doesn't recall the specifics of the conversation but said
Mr. Domingos's recollection is probably right.
One early misstep came in 2015, when several Black Google users
were surprised to see that the artificial-intelligence technology
in the company's free photography software had automatically
labeled one of their albums of human photos, "gorilla," based on
Google apologized and fixed the problem, and publicly redoubled
promises to build internal safeguards to ensure its software was
The effort involved hiring researchers such as Ms. Gebru, the
former co-head of the company's Ethical Artificial Intelligence
team, who has been outspoken on the limitations of
facial-recognition software in identifying darker-skinned
She was one of hundreds of employees who produced research,
sometimes with academic institutions, on AI. Unlike Google's other
engineers, the AI group functioned more like an academic department
-- tasked with debating larger issues rather than troubleshooting
Reuters later reported that before Ms. Gebru's departure, Google
had launched a review of sensitive topics and in at least three
cases asked staff not to cast its technology in a negative light.
Google declined to comment on that.
Ms. Gebru and Mr. Dean didn't respond to requests for comment
for this article.
Mr. Domingos said Google's artificial-intelligence advancements
have helped create faster and more accurate search results -- as
well as more relevant advertising.
Mr. Domingos said most of Google's problems related to AI are
rooted in the company's approach to managing staff, adding that
science, and not ideology, should guide ethical debates.
"Google is the coddler-in-chief," he said. "Their employees are
so coddled that they feel entitled to make more and more demands"
regarding how the company approaches AI and related issues.
Ms. Gebru's departure highlights the challenge Google leadership
faces, as the two sides can't even agree on whether she resigned,
as the company says, or was fired during her vacation, as she has
Write to Rob Copeland at email@example.com and Parmy Olson at
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 26, 2021 11:17 ET (16:17 GMT)
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