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Geoffrey Hinton, a pioneer in artificial intelligence (AI) and a longtime leader of Google’s AI research division, has resigned from his position at the tech giant, citing growing concerns about the ethical implications of the technology he helped create, the New York Times reported on Monday.
Hinton, who is widely regarded as the “Godfather of AI” for his groundbreaking work on deep learning and neural networks, said he decided to leave Google after more than a decade to speak more openly about the potential risks and harms of AI, especially as the company and its rivals have been racing to develop and deploy ever more powerful and sophisticated models.
“I console myself with the normal excuse: If I hadn’t done it, somebody else would have,” Hinton told the Times in an exclusive interview. “It is hard to see how you can prevent the bad actors from using it for bad things.”
The news of Hinton’s departure comes just over a month after more than 1,000 AI researchers signed an open letter calling for a six-month pause on the the training of AI systems more powerful than GPT-4, the newest model released by OpenAI in March. The letter states that “AI systems with human-competitive intelligence can pose profound risks to society and humanity, as shown by extensive research and acknowledged by top AI labs.”
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A growing chorus of critics
Hinton’s departure is the latest and most prominent sign of a growing rift between some of the world’s leading AI researchers and the tech companies that employ them. Many of these researchers have been raising alarms about the social, environmental and political impacts of AI, as well as the lack of transparency, accountability and diversity in the field.
Among them are Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell, two former co-leaders of Google’s Ethical AI team, who were both fired by the company in after they challenged its practices and policies on AI ethics.
Gebru, a renowned expert on bias and fairness in AI and a cofounder of Black in AI, a group that promotes diversity and inclusion in the field, was ousted in December 2020 after she co-authored a paper that criticized the environmental and social costs of large-scale language models.
Mitchell, who founded Google’s Ethical AI team in 2017 and was a vocal advocate for Gebru, was terminated in February 2021 after she conducted an internal investigation into Gebru’s dismissal and expressed her dissatisfaction with Google’s handling of the situation.
Other prominent voices in AI ethics have also been speaking out against the industry’s practices and priorities. Kate Crawford, a senior principal researcher at Microsoft Research and a distinguished professor at New York University, has written extensively on the risks of AI. She recently published a book titled Atlas of AI: Power, Politics, and the Planetary Costs of Artificial Intelligence, which reveals the hidden human and environmental tolls of AI production and consumption.
Stuart Russell, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, and a co-author of Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach, the standard textbook on AI, has been warning about the existential threat of superintelligent AI that could surpass human capabilities and goals.
The changing face of Google’s AI team
Hinton will leave Google seemingly on good terms. He notified Google of his intention to resign last month, according to the Times. He also had a phone conversation with Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, on Thursday, but declined to publicly disclose the details of their discussion. Hinton tweeted that he thinks “Google has acted very responsibly.”
Hinton’s departure now gives context to a major reorganization of Google’s AI operations that was announced by Pichai last month. The company said it was merging its Google Brain team, which was led by Hinton and focused on core AI research, with DeepMind, its London-based subsidiary that specializes in advanced AI applications such as gaming and healthcare.
The new group, called Google DeepMind, is headed by Jeffrey Dean, a veteran researcher who joined Google in 1999 and has been instrumental in developing and implementing many of the company’s key technologies, including its advertising system, search engine and cloud computing platform.
Update (11:13am PT): Jeff Dean, chief scientist at Google, has provided the following statement on Geoff Hinton’s departure: “Geoff has made foundational breakthroughs in AI, and we appreciate his decade of contributions at Google. I’ve deeply enjoyed our many conversations over the years. I’ll miss him, and I wish him well! As one of the first companies to publish AI Principles, we remain committed to a responsible approach to AI. We’re continually learning to understand emerging risks while also innovating boldly.”
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