Big Tech’s research teams in slippery terrain

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The research arms of Big Tech companies have made breakthroughs aplenty – but as industry’s role in society becomes dominant and researchers examine the human dimensions of technology, corporate labs are also becoming lightning rods of controversy.

The big picture: University researchers demand the freedom to pursue their studies wherever they lead. Corporate research departments also profess independence, but this ideal can come into tension with a company’s goals and pursuit of profit.

Drive the news: These issues have surfaced amid a series of controversies within Google’s AI research team, including the recent forced exits of Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell, the team’s co-leaders of Google’s ethical AI.

  • Part of the litigation has centered on the freedom of researchers within a company to freely publish their research and speak freely about the shortcomings of their employer’s own products.
  • “Search integrity can no longer be taken for granted in Google’s enterprise search environment, and Dr. Gebru’s dismissal has upended a practical understanding of the type of search Google will allow,” a letter signed by thousands of Google employees and other outside academics and technicians, the company said.
  • To be clear, the Google controversy isn’t just about academic freedom — critics also point to a range of concerns about the company’s treatment of women and people of color.

Be smart: Exploration of semiconductor materials or battery design is less likely to raise red flags in corporate suites than studies of the fairness of algorithms or the impact of technology on people’s health. workers.

  • At the same time, corporate-funded research on such topics is less likely to win public trust, no matter how impeccable the researcher’s work.

Each of today’s tech giants takes a different approach to search.

  • Microsoft Research dates back 30 years and now has thousands of researchers in labs in China, India, the UK and North America. Among the products that have started research are the Xcloud gaming service and the Airband broadband initiative, as well as important features in Excel and other Office applications.
  • Google employs more than 3,000 researchers, with labs in the Bay Area, New York, India, Zurich and London. Among the commercial products that have emerged from the research are Google Translate and Tensor Flow, as well as many of the Pixel smartphone’s photographic advancements and Gmail’s smart reply feature.
  • Apple, while known for keeping its research secret and largely focused on future products, has taken a slightly more open approach to machine learning, given that the field remains dominated by academic types. A series of academic papers, for example, are posted on the company’s public website.
  • Amazon is best known for having a product-centric (or, as Amazon would call it, customer-obsessed) view of R&D. However, it has an Amazon Science unit that does research in a number of areas such as computer vision, machine learning, and quantum computing. He has labs in his hometown of Seattle, as well as in California, Massachusetts, the UK, and Shanghai.

history lesson: The corporate research laboratories of the 20th century ushered in the era of modern technology.

  • Transistors originated in the now 90-year-old Bell Labs, now part of Nokia. Bell also gave birth to the laser, Unix and solar cells.
  • Founded in 1970, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (now Parc) helped invent and develop fundamental computer components, including the graphical user interface, Ethernet networking, and laser printing. But Xerox never figured out how to turn that work into popular products — instead, Apple did.
  • Other laboratories have also played a vital role in the development of modern technology industry. IBM Research has 12 labs on six continents, including its Almaden Research Center in San Jose. HP Labs just turned 55 this week and is now part of Hewlett-Packard Enterprise.

Our thought bubble: In the past, research divisions often became the first target of budget cuts at giant corporations that liked to put Nobel Prizes in press releases but struggled to turn breakthrough discoveries into profitable products.

  • Today’s tech giants aren’t cutting their budgets, but they may still be tempted to pull out of research if they can’t control it.
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