Microsoft's AI Ethics Team Gets the Axe

Tech job cuts have been rampant this year, typically ascribed to inflationary concerns, and Microsoft has not been immune.

This month, the Redmond, Wash., giant laid off the entire team that originaly oversaw ethics around the company's AI software development efforts.  

Reporters at Platformerbroke the story, which can be read here. The "ethics and society team," part of Microsoft's AI efforts, had about 30 employees back in 2020, which consisted of "engineers, designers and philosophers." As part of Microsoft's cutback effort, that team was dispersed across Microsoft. The team was later eliminated, largely because of pressure from CEO Satya Nadella and Chief Technology Officer Kevin Scott.

Microsoft cut the AI ethics team to more rapidly get OpenAI models into customer hands, according to Platformer. It quoted John Montgomery, Microsoft's corporate vice president of AI, as offering that explanation.

After the AI ethics team was told it was being dispersed, Montgomery was asked by its members if that decision might be reconsidered. Montgomery declined to do so, saying of Microsoft's AI efforts that "there's a lot of stuff being ground up into the sausage." The AI ethics team at that point was reduced to seven members.

The remaining seven members of Microsoft's AI ethics team were notified later, on March 6, by Montgomery that they were being cut, which happened via a Zoom call.

Microsoft still maintains an Office of Responsible AI that is apparently separate from the pioneering AI ethics team that got cut this month. However, the AI ethics team had a past record as being the one that had worked practically on such matters at Microsoft, per the Platformer story.

Microsoft contended that people on its product teams and the Office of Responsible AI are currently "accountable for ensuring we put our AI principles into practice," according to a statement obtained by Platformer.

The gutting of the ethics and society AI team was part of Microsoft's general 10,000 job cuts announced back in January. These cuts are ongoing, and are expected to continue through the end of March 2024. Microsoft wasn't specific about its cuts, but sometimes entire teams have been eliminated, such as its AltspaceVR and Mixed Reality Toolkit teams. Microsoft-owned GitHub and LinkedIn also had job cuts that were described last month.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.