After being pushed out of Google, Timnit Gebru forms her own AI research institute: DAIR

Almost exactly one year ago, Timnit Gebru, one of the leaders of Google’s ethics in AI team and one of the foremost experts in that topic, was fired after sending an email of concern to her team. Now she has set up shop herself with a brand new research institute, DAIR, focused on the topics she felt were being sidelined at Google.

The Distributed Artificial Intelligence Research Institute is “an independent, community rooted institute set to counter Big Tech’s pervasive influence on the research, development and deployment of AI,” according to its announcement press release.

Built from the start to include and emphasize diverse perspectives and question the processes used at companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook/Meta, DAIR will be independently funded. The focus will be on publishing papers in the academic realm but without either the relentless pressure of traditional academia or the paternalistic interference of a global corporation hanging over the researchers.

“I’ve been frustrated for a long time about the incentive structures that we have in place and how none of them seem to be appropriate for the kind of work I want to do,” Gebru told The Washington Post.

So far the institute has raised $3.7 million, from the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Kapor Center and the Open Society Foundation. That ought to be enough to get started — and pay its researchers well, ensuring that this type of work is a realistic alternative to working at one of the deep-pocketed corporations that frequently fund AI research.

I asked Gebru, whom we have had on stage to talk about these very topics, for further information on DAIR’s methods and directions for future research; she pointed to the spatial apartheid work noted below and the institute’s research philosophy.

Safiya Noble, author of “Algorithms of Oppression” and Macarthur Genius Grant recipient, will be on DAIR’s advisory committee; we recently hosted her for a panel at TC Sessions: Justice where she spoke about the danger of considering technologies neutral or valuable as they become widely used and “banal,” when in fact that is exactly the time they should be under greater scrutiny.

And Raesetje Sefala is DAIR’s first research fellow; Sefala’s recent research focuses on geographical and economic segregation in South Africa, quantified by satellite imagery.

“AI needs to be brought back down to earth. It has been elevated to a superhuman level that leads us to believe it is both inevitable and beyond our control,” said Gebru in the announcement. “When AI research, development and deployment is rooted in people and communities from the start, we can get in front of these harms and create a future that values equity and humanity.”