Google's internal disputes over the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI) have become public knowledge because the firm is "a lot more transparent" than its competitors, according to CEO Sundar Pichai.
Speaking via video link at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Thursday, Pichai alluded to the tech giant's recent headaches, including the firing of senior AI ethicist Timnit Gebru, and a subsequent internal investigation into her colleague Margaret Mitchell.
Gebru's departure and the probe into Mitchell coincided with and helped galvanize more than 700 activist Googlers to form a proto-union in the US and Canada earlier this month. Google has more than 260,000 full-time employees and contractors globally, according to The New York Times.
In a conversation with German journalist Miriam Meckel, Pichai said AI was "one of the most profound things" Google was working on, but signaled that there was scope for improvement in the way the company handled internal dissent.
"Part of the reason you see a lot of debate, I mean, we engage as a company," Pichai said. "We are a lot more transparent than most other companies, and so you do see us in the middle of these issues."
Pichai added: "But I take it as a sign that we allow for debate to happen around this area, and we need to get better as a company. We are committed to doing so."
Though Pichai did not mention her by name, Gebru responded angrily to his remarks on Thursday.
Gebru, who was one of Google's few senior Black employees, has been highly critical of her former employer since her departure. She wrote on Twitter that Pichai and other managers helped create "hostile work environments."
"These people are unreal," she wrote.
The World Economic Forum, which began Monday, is being held virtually this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Other speakers at the virtual conference, which runs through Friday, Jan. 29, include German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
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