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Microsoft lays off an ethical AI team as it doubles down on OpenAI

Microsoft laid off an entire team dedicated to guiding AI innovation that leads to ethical, responsible and sustainable outcomes. The cutting of the ethics and society team, as reported by Platformer, is part of a recent spate of layoffs that affected 10,000 employees across the company.

The elimination of the team comes as Microsoft invests billions more dollars into its partnership with OpenAI, the startup behind art- and text-generating AI systems like ChatGPT and DALL-E 2, and revamps its Bing search engine and Edge web browser to be powered by a new, next-generation large language model that is "more powerful than ChatGPT and customized specifically for search."

The move calls into question Microsoft's commitment to ensuring its product design and AI principles are closely intertwined at a time when the company is making its controversial AI tools available to the mainstream.

Microsoft still maintains its Office of Responsible AI (ORA), which sets rules for responsible AI through governance and public policy work. But employees told Platformer that the ethics and society team was responsible for ensuring Microsoft's responsible AI principles are actually reflected in the design of products that ship. The team had been recently working to identify risks posed by Microsoft's integration of OpenAI's technology across its suite of products.

The ethics and society team wasn't very large -- only about seven people remained after a reorganization in October. Sources who spoke with Platformer said pressure from the chief technology officer Kevin Scott and CEO Satya Nadella was mounting to get the most recent OpenAI models, as well as next iterations, into customers' hands as quickly as possible.

Last year, the reorganization saw most of the ethics and society team transferred to other teams. On March 6, John Montgomery, corporate vice president of AI, told the remaining members that they'd be eliminated after all. Members of the team told Platformer they believed they were let go because Microsoft had become more focused on getting its AI products shipped before the competition, and was less concerned with long-term, socially responsible thinking.

Teams like Microsoft's ethics and society department often pull the reins on big tech organizations by pointing out potential societal consequences or legal ramifications. Microsoft perhaps didn't want to hear "No," anymore as it became hell bent on taking market share away from Google's search engine. The company said every 1% of market share it could pry from Google would result in $2 billion in annual revenue.

Microsoft couldn't be reached for comment.