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Google activist Meredith Whittaker leaves company

Google employees hold up signs during a Nov. 1 walkout in San Francisco.
Google employees hold up signs at Harry Bridges Plaza during a walkout in San Francisco in November. Several thousand workers around the world briefly walked off the job to protest what they said was the tech company’s mishandling of sexual misconduct allegations against executives.
(Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

One of the leaders of last year’s mass protests at Google has left the company, underlining a deepening rift between management and workers over issues ranging from sexual harassment to the potential risks of artificial intelligence.

Meredith Whittaker, an artificial intelligence researcher, said she had left to work full time on AI ethics and to focus on “organizing for an accountable tech industry — and it’s clear Google isn’t a place where I can continue this work.”

The 13-year Google employee took a leading role late last year in organizing walkouts of workers around the world over Google’s handling of sexual harassment complaints against senior executives.

The protests followed a New York Times report revealing that the company had hidden the reasons for the departure of two top executives, one of whom, Android creator Andy Rubin, left with a large payout.

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Encouraging open debate among workers on internal message boards has long been a part of Google’s culture. But that has come back to haunt the company as workers have taken outspoken positions on a wide range of issues, in turn prompting a backlash from Republican critics who say the worker pressure is adding to a bias against conservatives at the company.

The internal tensions first boiled over publicly in 2017 after a conservative employee posted controversial comments saying women are less well suited to become engineers than men, prompting an uproar from other workers. Right-wing critics said his later dismissal showed executives had caved to worker activism.

Other worker protests have erupted over a Google study into whether to launch a censored search engine in China, and a contract to handle automatic image recognition for U.S. military drones. The company backed off both projects.

Whittaker said she was worried about the way Google’s strong position in AI was carrying it into new markets, including healthcare, city development and governance, and transport.

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“The result is that Google, in the conventional pursuit of quarterly earnings, is gaining significant and largely unchecked power to impact our world (including in profoundly dangerous ways, such as accelerating the extraction of fossil fuels and the deployment of surveillance technology),” she said, writing in an internal note to fellow employees that was later published online.

Dealing with these issues would take “serious structural change in how technology is developed and how tech companies are run,” she added.

Whittaker, who co-founded a research group at New York University called the AI Now Institute to study the effects of AI, said she was leaving to work there full time. She also called on Google workers to become more organized, including unionizing, in order to take greater control of decision making at the company.

“The stakes are extremely high,” she wrote. “The use of AI for social control and oppression is already emerging, even in the face of developers’ best of intentions. We have a short window in which to act, to build in real guardrails for these systems, before AI is built into our infrastructure and it’s too late.”

© The Financial Times Ltd. 2019. All Rights Reserved. FT and Financial Times are trademarks of the Financial Times Ltd. Not to be redistributed, copied or modified in any way.


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