Backlash erupts as Microsoft cuts AI ethics staff

Windows 11 March 2023 update
(Image credit: Microsoft)

What you need to know

  • AI is a growing field of technology that powers several services, including Microsoft's Bing Chat. 
  • Microsoft has invested or committed to invest 11 billion in OpenAI research and development. 
  • Microsoft has just laid off one of the teams responsible for making sure AI was used in an ethical manner. 
  • AI tools have come under fire from many artists and professional writers. 

Microsoft's new Bing Chat tool is making massive waves, but the tech giant now lacks a dedicated team to focus on implementing AI technology in a way that meets the company's guidelines.

According to a new report from Platformer (via The Verge), Microsoft recently laid off one of the teams responsible for handling ethics in AI usage. This comes at a time when Bing Chat is exploding in popularity, with the tool pushing Bing to over 100 million daily active users.

Platformer notes that while there is still a set of guiding principles in the form of Microsoft's Office of Responsible AI, there is no longer a dedicated team to interpret these principles in a rapidly evolving field of technology.

"People would look at the principles coming out of the office of responsible AI and say, ‘I don’t know how this applies,’" said one former employee. "Our job was to show them and to create rules in areas where there were none.”

Most of the team had already reportedly been moved to other parts of Microsoft, but the remaining employees on the ethics team were laid off on March 6, 2023.

Bing Chat AI

Microsoft's Bing Chat has gained popularity quickly, helping Bing hit a total of 100 million daily active users. (Image credit: Daniel Rubino)

“Microsoft is committed to developing AI products and experiences safely and responsibly, and does so by investing in people, processes, and partnerships that prioritize this,” said the company in a statement.

“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 & Society did to help us on our ongoing responsible AI journey.”

In 2020, the Ethics and Society team had 30 members, including engineers, designers and philosophers. The team was cut to around seven people, according to Platformer's report.

The outlet also reported that the tech giant pushed to roll out AI quickly, resulting in the movement of many employees.

"The pressure from [CTO] Kevin [Scott] and [CEO] Satya [Nadella] is very, very high to take these most recent OpenAI models and the ones that come after them and move them into customers hands at a very high speed," said John Montgomery, corporate vice president of AI in a meeting with the Ethics and Society team, according to audio obtained by Platformer.

The team reportedly pushed back, but Montgomery said, "can I reconsider? I don’t think I will." He continued, "Cause unfortunately the pressures remain the same. You don’t have the view that I have, and probably you can be thankful for that. There’s a lot of stuff being ground up into the sausage."

The CVP said at the time that the Ethics and Society team would not be eliminated. The company did, however, eliminate the team entirely during a call made March 6, 2023.

Windows Central's take

AI is increasingly popular and big tech companies around the globe are racing to find new ways to use it and take advantage of what it offers. This technology has also come under immense criticism, with AI image generators gathering data based on artists' work without any form of credit or compensation. I personally follow many artists and none of them are happy about the direction this technology is taking.

For a company like Microsoft to continue investing in AI to the tune of billions of dollars, it needs to have a careful approach that helps people and does not rob others of their work. Dropping the already-wilting Ethics and Society team that helped answer these kinds of questions does not inspire confidence.

Samuel Tolbert
Freelance Writer

Samuel Tolbert is a freelance writer covering gaming news, previews, reviews, interviews and different aspects of the gaming industry, specifically focusing on Xbox and PC gaming on Windows Central. You can find him on Twitter @SamuelTolbert.

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