Microsoft lays off team responsible for AI ethics

Microsoft has axed its entire ethics and society team within its AI division, as part of the 10,000 wider layoffs at the company as a whole. 

The tech giant is now left without a team that ensures AI product design aligns with the values of responsible AI, right then the Redmond behemoth is mobilizing the technology into every one of it products and services conceivable.

There is still an Office for Responsible AI (ORA), which the company claims “puts Microsoft principles into practice by setting the company-wide rules for responsible AI through the implementation of our governance and public policy work.”

Internal conflict

Microsoft also claims that despite the elimination of the team, investment in making sure AI is responsibly developed is actually increasing. 

“Over the past six years we have increased the number of people across our product teams and within the Office of Responsible AI. We appreciate the trailblazing work the ethics and society team did to help us on our ongoing responsible AI journey,” the company said. 

Employees, on the other hand, said that the ethics and society team was crucial in making sure the AI products they actually designed were instilled with the principles of responsibility the company had espoused. 

A former employee commented on how the team made sense of the principles coming out of the ORA for the product designers, saying “our job was to show them [how they apply] and to create rules in areas where there were none.” 

The team also developed a toolkit to help product designers learn about these principles and realize the potential harms in creating AI tools. The team had been working on identifying the risks of instilling OpenAI’s technology within Microsoft products as well.

The ethics and society team had 30 members in 2020, and in October of last year, that number was cut to seven as part of a reorganization.

Silicon Valley news site Platformer claims to have obtained leaked audio of the meetings that followed this reorganization, highlighting the conflict between the team and John Montgomery, corporate vice president of AI at Microsoft.

Montgomery spoke of the immense pressure from the governance at Microsoft to take the AI models and “move them into customers hands at a very high speed.” He reassured employees that most members of the team would be moved into other areas of the company.

In response, one team member raised objections, arguing that “what this team has always been deeply concerned about is how we impact society and the negative impacts that we’ve had. And they are significant.” 

A further meeting earlier this month then confirmed that the remaining members of the team would be disbanded too, eliminating it altogether. 

Since then, another employee lamented the layoffs, believing that the rush to implement AI in the business without proper oversight and thought given to the ethical implications of AI: “The worst thing is we’ve exposed the business to risk and human beings to risk in doing this.” 

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