November 25th 2023.
With the ousting of Sam Altman from OpenAI and his subsequent return to clean up the board, many have compared his exit to the firing of Dr. Timnit Gebru from Google's ethical AI team. In August, Rolling Stone profiled Gebru and several other Black women who have been warning the tech industry of the dangers of artificial intelligence.
This prompted Matt Wallaert to ask the question on Twitter/X: "What if Sam Altman was a Black woman? Did Timnit get to return to Google? Did investors throw money at her to start something else?"
Gebru responded with a tweet of her own, saying "I mean the dude who fired me was waxing poetic about the 'small research community' and empathy for his colleagues and stuff so we know the answer." This was in reference to the Google executive who fired her, who had spoken about the "small research community" and empathy for his colleagues.
In comparison to Altman, Gebru didn't receive the same support from Google employees. There was no threat of a mass exodus and no job at Microsoft for her to seek refuge at.
Kimberly Bryant, the founder of Black Girls Code, faced a similar situation to Altman, but without the outpouring of support he enjoyed. In an interview with TechCrunch, Bryant said, “Unlike Atlman, Black women founders rarely enjoy such overwhelming support, and the road to recovery after setbacks can be exceptionally challenging.”
Bryant added that the lack of a Black or female counterpart to Altman reflects the persistent replication of the "successful CEO" prototype, which has been shaped primarily by the persona of the white male wonderboy.
Adding to the concerns of Black tech workers, OpenAI's board is now composed entirely of white men, which creates worry that the company is not living up to its mission to create technology that "benefits all of humanity".
Dr. Émilie Torres, an AI philosopher/researcher, told Business Insider, “It’s a real shame because these people are mostly obsessed with and preoccupied with these very sci-fi kind of fantasies about how AGI is going to usher in utopia or completely annihilate humanity. Lots of people are getting trampled in the march of so-called progress.”
Myashia Hayes, a director at MediaJustice, a racial and economic justice nonprofit, echoed these sentiments. She said, “It’s unsurprising that Black workers have greater anxiety and fear about being replaced in the workplace by AI than white workers. Historically, Black and brown workers tend to be the least protected and therefore most exploited for their labor — and that trend has carried over in the digital age.”
Hayes believes that the government needs to step in and do more to protect people from technology companies. She said, “It is insufficient to relegate the responsibility of protecting Black workers from the harms of AI to businesses alone. We need governments to be bold enough to slow down the rollout of these technologies until the adequate protections and guardrails exist that will protect Black workers and everyone else in our society.”
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