a year ago Google AI researcher Timnit Gebru tweeted “I’ve been fired” and sparked a debate about employees’ freedom to question the impact of their company’s technology. On Thursday, it launched a new research institute to ask questions about the responsible use of artificial intelligence that Gebru says Google and other tech companies won’t.
“Instead of fighting from the inside, I want to model a stand-alone organization with a different set of incentive structures,” says Gibru, founder and CEO of Distributed Artificial Intelligence Research (DAIR). The first part of the name is a nod to its goal of being more inclusive than most AI labs — which tend to be white, Western and male — and recruit people from parts of the world rarely represented in the tech industry.
Gebru has been fired from Google after a row with his superiors over a research paper urging caution with the new word processing technology that Google and other tech companies are enthusiastically adopting. Google said it resigned and was not fired, but acknowledged that it later fired Margaret Mitchell, another researcher who co-led with Gibrough a team researching ethical AI. The company has put out new checks on topics that researchers can explore. Google spokesperson Jason Friedenfelds declined to comment, but directed WIRED to a recent report on the company’s work on AI governance, which said Google has published more than 500 research papers on “responsible innovation” since 2018.
The fallout at Google has highlighted the struggles inherent in tech companies sponsoring or hiring researchers to study the implications of the technology they seek to capitalize on. Earlier this year, organizers of a leading conference on technology and society canceled Google’s sponsorship of the event. Gebru says DAIR will be more free to question the potential downsides of AI and unencumbered by academic politics and pressure to publish it, which she says could complicate university research.
DAIR will also demonstrate uses of artificial intelligence that are unlikely to be developed elsewhere, says Gebru, with the goal of inspiring others to take the technology in new directions. One such project is to create a public data set of aerial photographs of South Africa to study how the legacy of apartheid is still etched into land use. A preliminary analysis of the images found that in a densely populated area previously restricted to non-white people where many poor people still live, most of the vacant land between 2011 and 2017 was converted into affluent residential neighborhoods.
A paper on this project will mark DAIR’s first official appearance in academic AI research later this month at NeurIPS, the world’s premier AI conference. DAIR’s first research fellow, Raesetje Sefala, based in South Africa, is the lead author of the paper, which includes outside researchers.
Safia Noble, a professor at the University of California who researches how technology platforms are shaping society, serves on the DAIR advisory board. She says Project Jebro is an example of the kind of new and more inclusive institutions needed to make progress in understanding and responding to the impacts of technology on society.
“Black women have been major contributors to helping us understand the harms of big technology and the different kinds of technologies that are harming society, but we know the limits of American companies and academia that black women face,” Noble says. “Timnit learned about the damages at Google and tried to intervene but it was not widely supported – in a company that desperately needs that kind of insight.”
Noble recently launched her own nonprofit, Equity Engine, to support the ambitions of black women. She was joined on the DAIR Advisory Board by Ciira wa Maina, Lecturer at Dedan Kimathi University of Technology in Nyiri, Kenya.
DAIR is currently a nonprofit project, Code for Science and Society, but will later be listed as a nonprofit in its own right, Gebru says. Her project has received grants totaling more than $3 million from the Ford, MacArthur, Rockefeller, and Open Society foundations, as well as the Kapor Center. Over time, she hopes to diversify financial support for DAIR by taking on advisory work related to her research.