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Reasons for and effects of Microsoft cutting AI ethics unit

The tech giant has garnered much attention for integrating ChatGPT technology into its applications. However, eliminating its AI ethics unit raises questions.

Microsoft has eliminated its AI ethics team as it moves to integrate generative AI tools across its applications.

The move is part of the tech giant's strategic decision early this year cut 10,000 jobs as part of a $1.5 billion restructuring. However it also comes as Microsoft in recent months has been integrating OpenAI's ChatGPT technology into its applications and infrastructure.

While the news of the layoffs has led to criticisms, Microsoft is among several tech giants to restructure their responsible AI organizations. Last year Meta disbanded its Responsible Innovation team. Twitter also cut its ethics unit in late 2022.

Possible reasons

"Everybody seems to be laying off many people, including the whole of their responsible AI team," said Cansu Canca, AI ethics lead at the Institute for Experiential AI at Northeastern University. "This is extremely concerning. And in a way, it's also revealing about the company's priorities and their commitment about responsible AI."

While Microsoft still maintains its Office of Responsible AI, which they say sets rules for responsible AI, Canca said that's not enough.

"That is really reducing the understanding of ethics to really just like rules and compliance, whereas principles and guidelines are just the starting point of proper ethical work," she said. "You need people who really go into the depths of this work and try to figure out what can be done, like what are the exact issues that can be done using these principles?"

Constellation Research founder and analyst R. "Ray" Wang said he's heard that Microsoft laid off the ethics team because it was slowing down innovation related to its partner OpenAI.

"Getting rid of the ethics team is not a good thing, but it's holding back Microsoft's ability to innovate," Wang said.

This is extremely concerning. And in a way, it's also revealing about the company's priorities and their commitment about responsible AI.
Canca CansuAI ethics lead, Institute for Experiential AI at Northeastern University

However, not having an ethical team "would be an antithesis to their value," he added.

Others think Microsoft's motivation is to hand over the oversight of ethical AI to OpenAI.

"It seems that it is still a priority to the researchers at OpenAI," said William McKeon-White, an analyst at Forrester Research. "I wonder if Microsoft is working to effectively outsource more and more of that to OpenAI."

Microsoft could also be thinking more about making a splash in the market than the broader implications of their innovations, said Michael Bennett, director of the education curriculum and business lead for responsible AI at Northeastern University.

Consequences all around

Regardless of Microsoft's motivation for the move, its effects could be tangible.

One result will likely be more scrutiny from organizations concerned about AI technology's rapid advances.

"When they see this kind of rapid movement and liquidation of a unit, which was focused on minimizing those types of harms, they probably are going to make much more noise now to hold the company to the fire," Bennett said.

It could also help propel the movement toward AI regulation by lawmakers.

In a statement to TechTarget Editorial, a Microsoft spokesperson wrote the following:

Microsoft remains committed to developing and designing AI products and experiences safely and responsibly. As technology has evolved and strengthened, so has our investment, which at times has meant adjusting team structures to be more effective. 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 AI principles. We have also increased the scale and scope of our Office of Responsible AI, which provides cross-company support for things like reviewing sensitive use cases and advocating for policies that protect customers.

Esther Ajao is a news writer covering artificial intelligence software and systems.

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