Why Microsoft Fired Their Entire AI Ethics Team
The AI chatbot space race has taken the internet by storm, and as a struggle for market share continues to rub against ethical concerns, every tech-invested individual is on the edge of their seat to see what happens next. In the latest gossip, Microsoft has confusingly eliminated their entire AI ethics team.
Amongst the AI takeover, many people have been consistently vocalizing concerns about the ethical consequences of publicly accessible artificial intelligence software. While some concerns seem to be misplaced or misunderstandings, this move by Microsoft might be a very real signal that some of these concerns may hold some water after all.
Racing to the Market
What causes the elimination of an entire ethics team? Unsurprisingly, the answer is profits. More specifically, Microsoft is seeing and enjoying unprecedented growth in market presence after incorporating the AI assistant into their search engine. In a previously unambiguously Google dominated space, the shipping of AI products has given Microsoft not only a chance to compete but, potentially, a chance to take over. That is, of course, if it can roll products out fast enough.
One major obstacle in rolling these products out quickly is that they need to be screened for safety and ethical concerns. We aren’t exactly in the era of federally regulated artificial intelligence products quite yet, and so much of this ethics screening is left to the good will of companies like Microsoft. However, delaying products for the sake of safety can be costly and, for Microsoft and the search engine space, that cost can come in the shape of billions of dollars.
While it isn’t entirely clear exactly why the ethics team was eliminated, it seems that “slowing down product shipment” is a reasonable explanation. A couple of years ago, the ethics team was “reorganized” from about 30 people down to only 7 people, with the other 23 people moved to other Microsoft teams, supposedly to help with the same concerns more directly. Between this and the general massive 10,000 employee layoff, it’s likely the elimination of the team was the result of multiple factors beyond just speeding up the shipping process, but it’s an important motivator to note, nonetheless.
While Microsoft effectively laid off its entire AI ethics team, it’s important to note that there are other teams on staff to tackle similar and related problems. The Office of Responsible AI, Aether, and RAISE are all Microsoft teams that design and implement rules meant for safer, more responsible AI development. That said, the Ethics team was the only one tasked with anticipating ethical problems with AI software head-on, and their work wasn’t exactly superfluous.
One of the biggest controversies around artificial intelligence in the current sphere of debate is the replication and recreation of artists’ work and style. Microsoft engineers themselves have voiced concerns over how simple it is to input an artist’s name into the OpenAI-developed image generation software and produce “original” art that is virtually indistinguishable from the original artist’s work. Most artists did not explicitly consent to have their work thrown into the training pool, per se, and OpenAI’s stance on granting creative rights to the software user without necessarily crediting the original artist makes this particularly problematic. Microsoft’s ex-Ethics team members noted this explicitly, but their concerns were largely ignored before they were let go.
Similar to this, there are a variety of ethical problems that need to be considered and grappled with as artificial intelligence technology continues to be developed and continues to become more accessible and easier to use. While the debate over whether it is the wrongdoers or the tools themselves that need to be scrutinized rages on, it would seem obvious that companies take a specific interest in making sure their products are as harmless as possible. No matter how you look at it, eliminating your entire AI Ethics team is not a good look.
A Message of Warning
Truthfully, it’s tough to spot an easy solution. This technology is exciting for many reasons, and it’s no longer a question of what happens when it gets here? Artificial intelligence is here, and it’s more capable now than ever. As with all new and impressive technologies, it will be an adventure to pin down the ethical limitations of these tools, and the proper way to mitigate or prevent the harm that they can cause.
Some concerns around AI acting maliciously or functioning autonomously might be a bit misplaced, but other concerns, such as plagiarism in this way, are very real and need to be taken seriously. These rules and regulations continue to be written and rewritten, as individuals, it is important that we hold ourselves accountable to our own moral compass and navigate these new paths sincerely. As a community, it’s critical that we hold one another accountable as we all learn how to protect each other. As consumers, it’s important that we hold these companies accountable for their own disregard for safety or ethics. At the end of the day, market share cannot come before our basic humanity.
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