A small group of Google employees and contractors stunned Silicon Valley on Jan. 4 when they announced the formation of a union—a surprising breakthrough in a field dominated by gigantic companies used to making their own rules.
The 700 members of the Alphabet Workers Union represent a sliver of the 260,000 employees and contractors at Alphabet, the parent company of Google. But their collective gathering will ultimately help Google and other tech companies in Silicon Valley that have been struggling to regulate themselves, predicts Usama Fayyad, executive director for Northeastern’s Institute of Experiential Artificial Intelligence.
“This is definitely an extreme action in the technology world,” says Fayyad, a leader in AI for three decades, and the founder of Open Insights, Yahoo! Research Labs, Data Mining at Microsoft, and the Machine Learning Systems group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “But it’s justified based on the unusually dramatic and troubling events that have happened over the past two years.”
Almost 7,000 Google employees and industry insiders have signed a petition protesting Google’s dismissal last year of Timnit Gebru, a Black researcher who had co-written a paper arguing that tech companies have been developing AI that fuels gender biases. Recently, Axios reported that Google is investigating another leading AI ethicist, Margaret Mitchell, who had reportedly been searching for examples of discriminatory treatment of Gebru. (Google CEO Sundar Pichai has apologized for its handling of Gebru’s departure and promised to investigate the incident.)
Employees have also challenged Google over issues of transgender rights, sexual harassment, and a Pentagon partnership (since terminated by Google) in which the company contributed machine learning research to a drone project. Last month, the National Labor Relations Board said Google probably violated labor law in the firing of two employees who were helping to unionize.
Google—like Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and other tech behemoths—has struggled with ethical issues that have emerged during two decades of exponential growth, says Fayyad.
“It’s a promising sign that employees feel strongly enough about the ethical side and the fairness side that they’re willing to take that risk to their livelihood,” says Fayyad, who was surprised that the workers had unionized. While the original U.S. labor unions were created after the Civil War to protect workers during the industrial revolution, in response to the digital revolution, tech workers are collaborating in order to make stands on ethical issues. “This is motivated by their desire to do good,” says Fayyad.
“I would add that it’s very hard to define what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad,’” he says. “But part of the fault is Google’s, because they haven’t really addressed this issue clearly and said, look, here’s where we stand.”
In general, tech workers want to design machine learning systems that help people reach their potential, says Fayyad, who came to Northeastern last year to help develop forms of AI with humans in the loop.
Constructive input from employees could help tech companies at a time when the U.S. government is considering regulation and potential breakups of Big Tech, says Carla Brodley, dean of the Khoury College of Computer Sciences.
“I think it’s great in our industry that we start to see some unionization of people—and that it’s not about whether they’re being underpaid, because everybody knows the tech industry pays well,” says Brodley, who this summer will become dean of Northeastern’s Center for Inclusive Computing, of which she is the founding executive director. “For any company that collects user data, there needs to be accountability.”
The nascent union, which has already tripled in size, has shown itself capable of creating public awareness. Three days after their formation, the Alphabet workers called on YouTube (owned by Google) to ban President Donald Trump’s account after he provoked riots in Washington, D.C.
“It is clearly a situation of workers organizing and wanting to have more voice,” says Emily Spieler, the Edwin W. Hadley Professor of Law at Northeastern. “Google likes to be able to recruit the best and the brightest, and I think they end up having to walk a fairly careful line about how they want to present themselves in terms of their relationships to the people who work there. And that is why this organizing may really be able to have an impact, despite the relatively small number of people involved.”
Fayyad believes the workers’ movement will grow within Google and spread to other tech companies that are struggling to balance ethical desires with the pursuit of commercial growth.
“I think this will trigger many similar actions,” Fayyad says. “I am sure a lot of the employees at the tech giants—or any company that utilizes AI—are saying, ‘Do I want to work here?’ And if they really love the company, they’re saying, ‘What do I do to fix these situations?’”