Is Microsoft still commited to Responsible AI?

The team that taught employees at Microsoft how to make responsible AI products was laid off. What does this mean now for the future of responsible AI?

Well….that didn’t take long, did it? 

After writing recently about how impressed I was that Microsoft was laying the groundwork for an ethical and responsible AI race, it all came undone. Microsoft has now laid off its entire ethics and society team.  This leaves the company without a dedicated team to ensure its AI principles are closely tied to product design. It comes at a time when the company is leading the charge to make AI tools available to the mainstream. This move comes as Microsoft accelerates its push into AI products, which could put the company at risk of unintended negative consequences.

While Microsoft still maintains an active Office of Responsible AI, tasked with creating rules and principles to govern the company’s AI initiatives, former employees argue that the ethics and society team played a critical role in ensuring that the company’s responsible AI principles are actually reflected in the design of the products that ship. The team even made the work enjoyable by designing a role-playing game. Judgment Call helped designers imagine potential harms that could result from AI and discuss them during product development. The team was also working to identify risks posed by Microsoft’s adoption of OpenAI’s technology. Open AI is no stranger to controversy, so these steps seemed logical. What is happening now doesn’t. 

The decision to lay off the ethics and society team leaves a gap in the universal design of AI products, which could result in the company exposing their business and humanity to risk. Microsoft is investing heavily in AI products and experiences, but without a dedicated team to ensure their products are being created responsibly, ethically, and fair, the company could make a mistake and release biased or harmful products. I am deeply disappointed that this is the route they decided to take. 

It’s important to note that Microsoft is not the only tech giant to face this tension between developing AI products quickly and responsibly. Google fired ethical AI researcher Timnit Gebru in 2020 after she published a paper critical of the large language models that would explode into popularity two years later. The resulting controversy resulted in the departures of several more top leaders within the department and diminished the company’s credibility on responsible AI issues.

Given the stakes involved with the development of AI, any cuts to teams focused on responsible work are noteworthy. While Microsoft still has three different groups working on responsible AI issues, the elimination of the ethics and society team makes me question how much of a difference the others can make. I mentioned before how their dedication to good and fair tech for all would be very important in the upcoming AI wars. With them choosing to ship out the fastest working AI vs the best, I cannot help but see this as a knife in the backs of people who believed in them. 

Now I’m changing sides. I do not want Microsoft to win this race if this is the route they will choose to follow. I’m now looking at Google to see if they will try to make amends for their past mistakes. Or if they will choose the fast vs quality route like others. In the end, if that is the route that the companies all choose to take, we will all be the losers.