I have had the privilege of being at Google for the past six years. One of the most impressive things I’ve seen there was an Ethical AI team being pulled out of the ether by one woman over the course of four years. Meg Mitchell is a friend of mine who I met through my work on ethical AI at Google. She spent years recruiting people, connecting people across Google and building Google’s reputation with the rest of the world as a place where ethics matters. In a time when Google’s motto of “Don’t be evil” had become an ironic punchline, Meg made sure it was true wherever she went. There has been much talk in the press about the recent negative events surrounding that team but I felt like the story of its birth and fostering has been largely overlooked.
I joined Google on February 2, 2015. At that time there was no Ethical AI team. There was barely a hint of ethical concerns about the AI which we were building. I started working on ethical AI by joining Yuliya Zabiyaka’s 20% time project detecting gender bias in text. We worked for a year and a half and, with the help of my intern Brian Zhang, were able to produce a system that could remove some of the gender bias from word embeddings. Brian brought it to my attention that there was an “Ethical AI Hackathon” happening and that we might want to attend. I asked my manager if it would be okay and with his approval we attended. That’s how a Stanford sophomore and I found ourselves in the company of some of the most brilliant AI ethicists that Google had to offer. That was the week when I met Meg Mitchell.
I’m a decent software engineer and system designer. My intern was (and presumably still is) a mathematical genius. Neither of us were cutting edge scientists (although he may be now). Meg saw what we had to offer and agreed to help us turn it into real science. Over the course of the next few weeks she told us which datasets to use and which tasks to try it against. At each turn we adapted the system based on hir guidance. Within a month we had turned our system from something which was hodge-podge code into real science. To get it the last mile she helped us write the paper and we got it published at the first ever AI Ethics and Society conference.
Through all of that I was only tangentially aware that Meg had organized the entire hackathon that we had attended. She was hired to Google from Microsoft research and began trailblazing as soon as she got there. She had a clear vision of what she wanted to accomplish and had a deep…