One of the organizers of last November's massive Google walkout, Meredith Whittaker, has left the company. Her departure, first announced over Twitter by a Google software engineer, was confirmed by the company.
Today is @mer__edith's final day at Google. Watching her experience as a whistleblower at Google and a victim of retaliation cannot signal good things for how AI institutions will react to negative criticism. #NotOkGoogle— Chris Lu (@thegreenfrog611) July 15, 2019
Whittaker and another walkout organizer, Claire Stapleton said that they faced retaliation after November's protest against how the company handles sexual harassment and misconduct allegations.
In a message posted to many internal Google mailing lists Monday, Meredith Whittaker, who leads Google’s Open Research, said that after the company disbanded its external AI ethics council on April 4, she was told that her role would be “changed dramatically.” Whittaker said she was told that, in order to stay at the company, she would have to “abandon” her work on AI ethics and her role at AI Now Institute, a research center she cofounded at New York University. -Wired
During the November walkout - sparked by a sweetheart payout to Android co-creator Andy Rubin, who walked away with a $90 million package despite being "credibly accused" of forcing a woman to give him a blowjob in 2013 - employees demanded that the company implement measures against harassment and discrimination, as well as an end to forced arbitration, a safe and anonymous process to report sexual misconduct, and a publicly disclosed sexual harassment transparency report, according to Tech Crunch.
Over the past year, Google employees have also protested a Pentagon contract to develop AI, as well as China's "Project Dragonfly" search project which would help the Chinese government to track and surveil citizens. Amid the controversies, Whittaker was one of the most outspoken voices.
While at Google, Whittaker also served with AI Now, an ethics organization affiliated with New York University that she co-founded. The group often criticizes businesses and government agencies for using AI systems, like facial recognition, in policing and surveillance. Whittaker also publicly denounced some Google decisions, including the appointment of Kay Coles James, a conservative think tank leader, to an AI ethics board. Google soon nixed the board.
"People in the AI field who know the limitations of this tech, and the shaky foundation on which these grand claims are perched, need to speak up, loudly. The consequences of this kind of BS marketing are deadly (if profitable for a few)," Whittaker wrote on Twitter on Sunday. -Bloomberg
Stapleton, meanwhile, left the company in June - saying that had she remained, she could expect "public flogging, shunning and stress."