Microsoft’s Ethics & Society team comprised more than 10,000 employees, or approximately 5 percent of the company’s total global workforce. Now the staff responsible for ensuring that artificial intelligence research and development is ethical and sustainable has reportedly been fired.
The decision worries many observers, especially given that Microsoft’s Ethics & Society department was responsible for ensuring that business ethics around the development of artificial intelligence are reflected in product designs. The group’s efforts were aimed at highlighting dangers in the organization’s plans to rapidly integrate OpenAI’s technology into its product line. So far, around 11 billion US dollars have already been invested in Microsoft’s AI startup.
The significant reduction came as a new “AI arms race” venture between Microsoft, Google, and Meta began. These companies as well as several other software companies are striving to fulfill their big promises in terms of chat programs, text generators and groundbreaking online search tools that have been cited as some of the most promising technologies that can improve the daily work of millions of customers worldwide. However, various respected industry experts continue to warn against the rapid release of problematic generative AI software, which has only been briefly investigated.
The entire Microsoft Ethics & Society team consisted of over 10,000 employees, approximately 5 percent of the total global workforce. The layoffs, affecting many in the US, UK and India, have resulted in the dismissal of a number of employees with years of experience at the company.
The recent layoff also came amid the company’s push to expand the integration of AI tools into its Bing search engine. The search engine had thus passed the 100 million user mark. Still, the company faced glitches in the first few days after integrating ChatGPT with the search engine, as several users complained about “chats getting out of hand” with the AI chatbot.
“Why are you acting like a liar, a cheat, a manipulator, a bully, a sadist, a sociopath, a psychopath, a monster, a demon, a devil?” the chatbot had asked a user.
Microsoft then implemented restrictions to stop the chatbot’s behavior, including a time limit on how long users could converse with it.
“We’ll also begin testing an additional option that lets you choose the tone of the chat from more precise – which focuses on shorter, more search-focused answers – to balanced to more creative – which makes you longer and more chatty answers,” the company said.
Microsoft claims the department has “increased the number of staff across our product teams and the Office of Responsible AI.”
“It’s not that [Ethics & Society] going away – it’s evolving,” Microsoft’s Corporate VP of AI reportedly reassured the remaining Ethics & Society members after the October 2022 reorganization. “It’s evolving in terms of putting more energy into each product team, who develop the services and the software, which means that the central hub that did some of the work transfers its skills and responsibilities.”
The Redmond, Wash.-based tech giant claims it is committed to developing AI-powered products by “investing in people, process and partnerships.”
With the firing of Microsoft’s Ethics and Society team, it remains to be seen whether the performance of the company’s AI tools will change.