• Microsoft said it was thankful for the team's 'trailblazing work' in responsible AI
  • The team 'created rules where there were none,' a former team member said
  • Microsoft laid off 10,000 employees in January, citing the economic downturn

Microsoft's artificial intelligence (AI) ethics and society team is among the teams that are wiped out as part of the tech giant's mass layoffs that affected 10,000 employees, a new report revealed.

"Over the past six years we have increased the number of people across our product teams and within the Office of Responsible AI who, along with all of us at Microsoft, are accountable for ensuring we put our AI principles into practice. [...] We appreciate the trailblazing work the ethics and society team did to help us on our ongoing responsible AI journey," Microsoft said in a statement that Platformer published Monday.

While Microsoft still has its Office of Responsible AI, some employees told Platformer that the axed team played a major role in ensuring that Microsoft's responsible AI principles were reflected in its products.

"People would look at the principles coming out of the office of responsible AI and say, 'I don't know how this applies.' Our job was to show them and to create rules in areas where there were none," a former employee said.

Platformer's Casey Newton said Microsoft's ethics and society team warned the company about how OpenAI technology may be misused. The team was recently working on determining potential risks related to Microsoft's adoption of OpenAI's tech.

The Platformer reported that Microsoft's ethics and society team had about 30 employees in 2020, but was cut to around seven workers in October due to a restructuring. The team was made up of experts in design, engineering and philosophy.

"While I understand there are business issues at play ... what this team has always been deeply concerned about is how we impact society and the negative impacts that we've had," one team member said in an audio recording obtained by Platformer that revealed details of a meeting after the reorganization between Microsoft's corporate vice president of AI, John Montgomery, and the ethics and society team.

In the said meeting, Montgomery explained to the team that many of its members would be moved to other units. Some team members pushed back on the announcement and asked for reconsideration, but Montgomery said he doesn't think he can reconsider as "the pressures remain the same" from the leaders to reorganize fast.

Microsoft's decision to let its entire ethics and society team go may trigger questions about the company's commitment to ensuring that its product design was reflective of its AI fundamentals, TechCrunch reported.

Departments like ethics and society "often" point out potential legal challenges or societal consequences of AI, as per TechCrunch. With the team gone, some laid off employees told Platformer it appears Microsoft has shifted its focus from long-term responsible AI decisions to shipping AI products to beat the competition.

Microsoft announced in January that it was cutting 10,000 jobs due to the economic downturn and "changing customer priorities."

At the time, CEO Satya Nadella said Microsoft will continue to "hire in key strategic areas."

A Microsoft logo is seen a day after Microsoft Corp's (MSFT.O) $26.2 billion purchase of LinkedIn Corp (LNKD.N), in Los Angeles
Microsoft is just one of the big tech giants that cut thousands of jobs. Reuters