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Google Fires Second AI Ethics Leader as Dispute Over Research, Diversity Grows

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Alphabet Inc’s Google fired staff scientist Margaret Mitchell on Friday, they both said, a move that fanned company divisions on academic freedom and diversity that were on display since its December dismissal of AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru. Google said in a statement Mitchell violated the company’s code of conduct and security policies by moving electronic files outside the company. Mitchell, who announced her firing on Twitter, did not respond to a request for comment.

Google‘s ethics in artificial intelligence work has been under scrutiny since the firing of Gebru, a scientist who gained prominence for exposing bias in facial analysis systems. The dismissal prompted thousands of Google workers to protest. She and Mitchell had called for greater diversity and inclusion among Google’s research staff and expressed concern that the company was starting to censor papers critical of its products.

Gebru said Google fired her after she questioned an order not to publish a study saying AI that mimics language could hurt marginalized populations. Mitchell, a co-author of the paper, publicly criticized the company for firing Gebru and undermining the credibility of her work. The pair for about two years had co-led the ethical AI team, started by Mitchell.

Google AI research director Zoubin Ghahramani and a company lawyer informed Mitchell’s team of her firing on Friday in a meeting called at short notice, according to a person familiar with the matter. The person said little explanation was given for the dismissal. Google declined to comment.

The company said Mitchell’s firing followed disciplinary recommendations by investigators and a review committee. It said her violations “included the exfiltration of confidential business-sensitive documents and private data of other employees.” The investigation began January 19.

Google employee Alex Hanna said on Twitter the company was running a “smear campaign” against Mitchell and Gebru, with whom she worked closely. Google declined to comment on Hanna’s remarks. Google has recruited top scientists with promises of research freedom, but the limits are tested as researchers increasingly write about the negative effects of technology and offer unflattering perspectives on their employer’s products.

Reuters reported exclusively in December that Google introduced a new “sensitive topics” review last year to ensure that papers on topics such as the oil industry and content recommendation systems would not get the company into legal or regulatory trouble. Mitchell publicly expressed concern that the policy could lead to censorship. Google reiterated to researchers in a memo and meeting on Friday that it was working to improve pre-publication review of papers. It also announced new policies on Friday to handle sensitive departures and evaluate executives based on team diversity and inclusion.



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TECHNOLOGY

WhatsApp Gets New Feature That Lets Users Mute Audio of the Video Before Sharing

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WhatsApp has finally rolled out the mute-video feature that lets users mute the audio of videos while sharing them with others. The feature is currently rolling out to Android users and its availability for the iOS client remains unclear. The feature has been in the works for quite some time, and beta users received its access last month. Android WhatsApp users must ensure that they are using the latest version of the app to use the mute-video feature. Users can update the manually via Google Play Store.

To mute the audio of the video before sharing, users will need to tap on the speaker button below the seeker tool that allows trimming the length of a clip. The feature is similar to the mute audio option on the Instagram app that has been existing for quite some time. The latest WhatsApp feature is also rolling out to Android smartphone users in India. Though the update is not substantial, it is still useful as users can mute sensitive audio on videos that they want to share with others.

ALSO READ: WhatsApp Testing New Feature That Allows Users to Mute Videos Before Sending

Last month, Facebook-owned WhatsApp announced that it has completed 12 years of its journey. Since its launch in 2009, the app now not only allows users to send messages or media files, but also lets them start voice and video calls and make payments via the platform. However, the messaging platform has been embroiled in controversy ever since it announced new Terms of Policy for the platform. As per the new rules, Facebook will collect and share meta-data (course location, profile name, and so on) to provide more personalised ads on other Facebook-owned platforms. WhatsApp’s new privacy policy was slated to come into effect in February but has been deferred till May. The company recently detailed what will happen to users who don’t accept its new privacy policy in an FAQ on its website. As per WhatsApp, users will still be able to receive calls and notifications, but this will only be possible for a “short time.”



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