An entire team responsible for making sure that Microsoft’s AI products are shipped with safeguards to mitigate social harms was cut during the company’s most recently layoff of 10,000 employees, Platformer reported.
Former employees said that the ethics and society team was a critical part of Microsoft’s strategy to reduce risks associated with using OpenAI technology in Microsoft products. Before it was killed off, the team developed an entire “responsible innovation toolkit” to help Microsoft engineers forecast what harms could be caused by AI—and then to diminish those harms.
Platformer’s report came just before OpenAI released possibly its most powerful AI model yet, GPT-4, which is already helping to power Bing search, Reuters reported.
In a statement provided to Ars, Microsoft said that it remains “committed to developing AI products and experiences safely and responsibly, and does so by investing in people, processes, and partnerships that prioritize this.”
Calling the work of the ethics and society team “trailblazing,” Microsoft said that the company had focused more over the past six years on investing in and expanding the size of its Office of Responsible AI. That office remains active, along with Microsoft’s other responsible AI working groups, the Aether Committee and Responsible AI Strategy in Engineering.
Emily Bender, a University of Washington expert on computational linguistics and ethical issues in natural-language processing, joined other critics tweeting to denounce Microsoft’s decision to dissolve the ethics and society team. Bender told Ars that, as an outsider, she thinks Microsoft’s decision was “short-sighted.” She added, “Given how difficult and important this work is, any significant cuts to the people doing the work is damning.”
Brief history of the ethics and society team
Microsoft began focusing on teams dedicated to exploring responsible AI back in 2017, CNBC reported. By 2020, that effort included the ethics and society team with a peak size of 30 members, Platformer noted. But as the AI race with Google heated up, Microsoft began moving the majority of the ethics and society team members into specific product teams last October. That left just seven people dedicated to implementing the ethics and society team’s “ambitious plans,” employees told Platformer.