Is there such a thing as too much focus on artificial intelligence ethics these days? That’s the question Microsoft must have asked itself before the company laid off its central A.I. ethics and society team.
As Microsoft said in a statement to Platformer, which first reported the move, the team did “trailblazing work…to help us on our ongoing responsible A.I. journey,” but Microsoft’s individual product teams are now stocked up with people who “are accountable for ensuring we put our A.I. principles into practice.”
According to a former employee interviewed by Platformer, the ethics and society team had a valuable role in helping product teams understand how to apply those principles, which are set out by the tech giant’s Office of Responsible A.I.
There are two important pieces of context here. One is that Big Tech layoffs are in vogue right now—see also: Meta planning to cut 10,000 more jobs—so arguably redundant roles provide an obvious target. The other is that Big Tech has recently returned to moving fast and breaking things, with the A.I. arms race being a focal point of that shift.
There’s still a great deal of disquiet over Microsoft making its OpenAI-powered Bing chatbot publicly available at such an early stage, with its safeguards proving insufficient to stop it from behaving like a toxic creep. But the company is already racing to embed generative A.I. tech—which also raises ethical questions over the use of existing content as training data—across its enterprise portfolio.
Per audio reviewed by Platformer, Microsoft A.I. corporate vice president John Montgomery told workers late last year that CEO Satya Nadella and CTO Kevin Scott were applying “very, very high” pressure to put the latest A.I. models “into customers’ hands at a very high speed.”
It’s certainly easy to interpret the laying-off of Microsoft’s A.I. ethics and society team as the removal of bothersome friction at a time of manic competition. At the very least, the move sends a dispiriting message at a time when the public and experts alike have deep concerns about A.I.’s rapid evolution and deployment.
I asked Joanna Bryson, professor of ethics and technology at Berlin’s Hertie School, how she thought Microsoft’s A.I. ethics infrastructure might hold up. She noted that, when she visited Microsoft several years ago, the firm had embedded ethical principles across its organization. “I believe they wanted to be the ones who were on the right side this time,” she said.
However, Bryson added that Microsoft’s A.I. ethics push was “probably not long-term stable without having the extra team that was in the center.”
Microsoft insists it “remains committed to developing and designing A.I. products and experiences safely and responsibly.”
“As the technology has evolved and strengthened, so has our investment, which at times has meant adjusting team structures to be more effective,” a spokesperson said. “For example, over the past six years we have increased the number of people within our product teams who are dedicated to ensuring we adhere to our A.I. principles. We have also increased the scale and scope of our Office of Responsible A.I., which provides cross-company support for things like reviewing sensitive use cases and advocating for policies that protect customers.”
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Data Sheet’s daily news section was written and curated by Andrea Guzman.
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ON OUR FEED
We believe that humans + AI can cohost, coexist, + even raise the bar for each other; healthy competition!”
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BEFORE YOU GO
San Francisco’s new ride. The first commercial maritime vessel in the United States powered entirely by hydrogen fuel cell technology has arrived in San Francisco and will take passengers for rides in late spring. The 70-foot aluminum catamaran can carry 75 passengers and move at a clip of 15 knots, without any of the emissions emitted by the diesel-powered ferries that ply the San Francisco Bay, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Todd Sterling, air pollution specialist at the California Air Resources Board, told the San Francisco Chronicle that he hoped the hydrogen-powered boat inspires other vessel owners to make the switch. "So this is something that is zero emission and it doesn’t affect people that are right on the vessel," Sterling said.
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