Did Microsoft just kill its 'ethics and society' team to prioritize faster AI product shipping?

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Microsoft eliminated the “ethics and society” team dedicated to guiding the company to ensure responsible and ethical AI product designs before they ship to the public. Part of the group’s role was to dig into possible problems that could arise in the future due to these AI initiatives. This role had effects on the speed of the company’s AI product rollouts, making the group’s presence somehow both a boon and a bane for the software giant.

Prior to the removal of the team, John Montgomery, corporate vice president of AI, said there was pressure being put on Microsoft employees, with the leaders asking for faster shipping of AI products. Montgomery said that this led to the transfer of some of the team’s members to other AI organization areas. By October, the team was left with roughly seven people, according to The Verge.

“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 Montgomery in the audio recording obtained by Platformer.

One employee asked Montgomery to “reconsider this decision,” but the AI domain leader turned it down.

“Can I reconsider? I don’t think I will,” Montgomery responded. “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.”

In that same meeting, Montgomery assured that the team was “going away” but “evolving.” However, months after that, the remaining group members were informed that the whole team would be removed.

The killing of the ethics and society team is still part of Microsoft’s plan to lay off 10,000 employees within its workforce. However, Montgomery’s words about the explicit will of company leaders about faster AI product shipping give this decision a whole different context. According to the report, employees shared the same thought, admitting Microsoft has shifted its focus on competing with its rivals by shipping AI products faster and has become “less interested” in the team’s actual goals.

Despite this, the company still seems to value responsible AI use and product creation by maintaining other teams overseeing the design and creation processes. Currently, there are three teams still active for guiding Microsoft’s AI initiatives: Aether Committee, the Office of Responsible AI, and Responsible AI Strategy in Engineering.

Yet, while the three teams seem to have almost the same responsibilities as the ethics and society team, employees said that what made the latter special was its work to ensure that Microsoft’s responsible AI principles were incorporated into the products being shipped. And with AI tech still practically an unfamiliar realm for tech companies, this role indeed bears great significance. 

More about the topics: ai, Microsoft layoffs