Ethics issues have been raised for a while now, especially with the explosive popularity of OpenAI’s ChatGPT, in which Microsoft owns 75%. Now, Microsoft has laid off its ethics team.
In a bleak but not wholly unprecedented move, Microsoft’s Ethics & Society department that worked on AI product development was axed. The move is a part of Microsoft’s organization-wide layoffs that has affected 10,000 employees in total.
Currently, there is nobody at Microsoft to teach AI how to be ethical and responsible in the human society as the company continues its push toward integrating ChatGPT in Bing.
This is worrisome to industry experts particularly because now there is no one to enforce the rules on AI products and the tech giant can theoretically go ahead with its own agenda rather than the society’s or the user’s when developing its next wave of AI products, as an ethics team alone can veto certain decisions or create specific rules.
An ethics team in such a climate mainly foresees legal and social consequences and acts on them. This can be detrimental to the rollout of new products, features, or updates. Incidentally, the removal of an ethics team can mean faster rollout of AI and that aligns well with Microsoft’s goal to take away as much market share from Google as possible. In fact, Microsoft’s CVP of finance Philippe Ockenden, on a call with analysts, said that Microsoft will gain $2 billion in annual revenue for each 1% of market share that it takes away from Google.
All isn’t doomed as Microsoft has an active department to chart principles that govern the AI initiatives within Microsoft called the Office of Responsible AI. There, Microsoft maintains that they have incremented the employees over the last several years gradually.
However, in a report by The Verge, a former employee comments how the job of the Ethics & Society team was to “create rules in areas where there were none,” a job that goes beyond settling on governing principles, as the vast majority of AI-related tools is uncharted territory.
It is to be noted that this affects ChatGPT’s parent company OpenAI in no way. Additionally, I’d be remiss to not throw light on the fact that Microsoft’s corporate VP of AI assures that the reorganization doesn’t mean that the consideration of ethics is dead in Microsoft’s AI products and initiatives and that the roles will still be filled by people, just in different product teams separately.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk was one of the first tech influencers to comment on Microsoft’s axing of the ethics team.
Musk, one of the initial investors in OpenAI, has regularly voiced concerns regarding the lack of AI oversight. He stepped down from the board of OpenAI in 2018 and currently owns no stake. He said, “Initially, it was created as an open-source nonprofit. Now it is closed-source and for-profit.”
From calling the lack of regulatory oversight of AI a major problem back in December 2022 to asking what will be left for humans to do more recently, he has taken an opinionated stance against the current developments in post-Microsoft OpenAI.