The Gist

  • More tech layoffs. Microsoft has laid off its "ethics and society" team as part of a larger round of layoffs affecting 10,000 employees.
  • What's the priority? The move has caused questions about whether Microsoft is prioritizing its competition with Google over long-term responsible AI practices.

In its most recent round of layoffs in January, Microsoft let go of its ethics and society team, which was dedicated to ensuring ethical, responsible and sustainable AI innovation. The move — first reported by Platformer March 13 — is part of a larger round of layoffs affecting 10,000 employees across the company.

The elimination of the team raises concerns about whether Microsoft is committed to integrating its AI principles with product design as the organization looks to scale these AI tools and make them available to its customers across its suite of products and services. Microsoft made major advancements in generative AI with its $10 billion investment in OpenAI, makers of ChatGPT, and AI integrations with Bing Search and the Edge browser. But we all know these chatbots and AI engines have a mind of their own sometimes — something Microsoft should also know from the past.

Microsoft Office of Responsible AI Still in Place

Although the ethics and society team was small, with only seven members remaining after a reorganization in October, its role was significant. According to Platformer, the ethics and society team in 2020 had roughly 30 employees including engineers, designers and philosophers.

Teams like Microsoft's ethics and society department often play a crucial role in ensuring that tech organizations don't overlook potential societal consequences or legal ramifications. Microsoft's move raises questions about whether the company is prioritizing its competition with Google over long-term responsible AI practices.

The organization does in fact maintain what it calls its Office of Responsible AI. This team creates and maintains the rules for responsible AI through governance and public policy work. However, employees claimed in the Platformer article that the ethics and society team was responsible for ensuring Microsoft's responsible AI principles were actually reflected in the design of products that get delivered to their customers. The team was also recently working to identify risks posed by Microsoft's integration of OpenAI's technology across its suite of products.

Related Article: Is Microsoft's AI-Driven Bing Really Better Than ChatGPT?

Is Microsoft Prioritizing Short-Term Goals Over Long-Term Responsible AI Practices?

It appears that pressure from Microsoft's CEO and CTO to get the most recent OpenAI models into customers' hands as quickly as possible led to the team's elimination.

“It certainly appears that intensifying competition in the generative AI space is leading to rapid innovation and deployment at all costs. Unfortunately, leadership appears to view these ethical AI teams as more of a hindrance than a help in this environment,” said Paul Roetzer, founder & CEO of the Marketing AI Institute.

This isn’t surprising when you consider that when Microsoft relaunched Bing with AI. Philippe Ockenden, Microsoft's CVP of finance, told analysts on a call that,"For every 1 point of share gain in the search advertising market, it's a $2 billion revenue opportunity for our advertising business.”

In a statement, Microsoft officials said the company is still committed to developing AI products and experiences "safely and responsibly."

"Over the past six years we have increased the number of people across our product teams and within the Office of Responsible AI who, along with all of us at Microsoft, are accountable for ensuring we put our AI principles into practice. […] We appreciate the trailblazing work the ethics and society team did to help us on our ongoing responsible AI journey.”

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