What Does an AI Ethicist Do? A Chat with Microsoft’s Tim O’Brien

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The Thinker, sculpture by August Rodin, is deep in though as AI marches on.

By Thomas H. Davenport, Professor of IT and Management at Babson College

Microsoft was one of the earliest companies to begin discussing and advocating for an ethical perspective on artificial intelligence. The issue began to take off at the company in 2016, when CEO Satya Nadella spoke at a developer conference about how the company viewed some of the ethical issues around AI. 

Nadella’s primary focus was on Microsoft’s orientation toward using AI to augment human capabilities and building trust into intelligent products. The next year, Microsoft’s R&D head Eric Horvitz partnered with Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer Brad Smith to form Aether, a cross-functional committee addressing AI and ethics in engineering and research.

[Ed Note: Aether, which stands for AI, Ethics and Effects in Engineering and Research, is an advisory board at Microsoft that deliberates about questions, issues, and challenges arising with developing and fielding applications of AI. The committee reports to Microsoft’s senior leadership team.]

With these foundations laid, in 2018, Microsoft established a full-time position in AI policy and ethics. Tim O’Brien, who has been with Microsoft for 15 years as a general manager, first in platform strategy and then global communications, took on the role.

Tim O’Brien, General Manager, AI Programs, Microsoft

I talked with O’Brien to find out how his role came about, what he does in it, and what kinds of policies might emerge at Microsoft because of his work. I also asked him how the AI ethicist role might relate to similar positions at other companies.

How the AI Ethicist Job Came About

O’Brien told me that he was inspired by the early steps Microsoft’s leaders had taken on AI ethics, and that he asked to pursue the topic for the company as his primary job. He’d been a product marketer for various tech companies early in his career and spent much of the last 15 years at Microsoft pitching developers on why they should build stuff on the company’s platforms.

I asked O’Brien if he was hiding a philosophy or theology degree on his LinkedIn profile, but he laughingly said no. He said he did have some exposure to ethics issues in his business law classes as an MBA student and that he went to a Jesuit high school — a Catholic order known for its focus on ethics and philosophy. That’s it, though, for his formal educational preparation in ethics.

How an AI Ethicist Spends His Time

O’Brien’s job began in May 2018, and he began traveling around the world almost immediately. His primary activities have included giving speeches at conferences, meeting with Microsoft customers, leading a research effort, talking with analysts and researchers, and coordinating activity across Microsoft.

O’Brien’s presentations have focused on topics such as avoiding algorithmic bias and creating transparency in AI models. Some of Microsoft’s ideas on these issues have been described in the press. It’s important to clarify that although O’Brien’s job title is focused on AI, he promotes ethical perspectives on all information technologies. O’Brien said he views AI as the “spark that lit ethics in tech,” including analytics, the internet of things, and virtual and augmented reality, as well as AI. Many solutions in the real world are, of course, hybrids of these technologies.

The goal of the research initiative he heads is to develop a global perspective on tech ethics. In his previous job, O’Brien observed that different societies around the world have very different perspectives on privacy and ethics. Just within Europe, for example, U.K. citizens are willing to tolerate video camera monitoring on London’s central High Street, perhaps because of IRA bombings of the past, while Germans are much more privacy oriented, influenced by the former intrusions of East German Stasi spies. O’Brien suggested that in China, the public is tolerant of AI-driven applications like facial recognition and social credit scores at least in part because social order is a key tenet of Confucian moral philosophy.

Within Microsoft, O’Brien is trying to extend the community of people who are focused on the ethics topic. O’Brien said he works closely with Smith’s legal team and also has a matrixed reporting relationship to Eric Horvitz, technical fellow and director at Microsoft Research Labs. Of course, Microsoft is a big company, but awareness of AI ethics seems to be catching on rapidly and broadly there.

This bottom-up, middle-out approach to change is what CEO Nadella is trying to inculcate within the Microsoft culture. The days of asking for a million dollars and a hundred people for a new project are over, O’Brien says. The desired approach is to get an idea in action and try to attract the needed resources over time.

AI Policy Development at Microsoft

O’Brien expects that there will eventually be a collection of policies within Microsoft about how to use AI and related technologies. Some have already emerged, such as Smith’s 2018 directive on facial recognition technologies, which stated through a blog post that Microsoft would not sell its technology for facial recognition in ways that can “adversely affect consumers and citizens” or “encroach on democratic freedoms and human rights.”

O’Brien believes there will be a number of other policies that the company will define, from avoiding algorithmic bias to model transparency to specific applications like predictive policing. 

But there are many questions on which concrete policies remain to be developed. O’Brien mentions, for example, mistakes made by AI systems and legal remediation for harm from AI. He believes that the most interesting part of the field is the many unresolved questions within it.

Microsoft is a big player in AI and tech more broadly, so there is little doubt in my mind that having an AI ethicist role is a good idea for the company. In the time since O’Brien was named to the role, Salesforce.com and a few other vendors have created similar positions. Other companies that are not major IT vendors may not want to advocate as strongly in public about AI-related issues. And it wouldn’t be a good idea to create an AI ethicist role without the strong leadership and support from senior executives that Microsoft exhibits. However, as I have suggested, many other businesses will face issues similar to the ones that O’Brien is wrestling with for Microsoft, and having an internal role or group to address them will be useful.

Thomas H. Davenport (@tdav) is the President’s Distinguished Professor of Information Technology and Management at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, as well as a fellow at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy and a senior adviser to Deloitte’s Analytics and Cognitive practice. He is the author of The AI Advantage (MIT Press, 2018). Links to his work are online at tomdavenport.com.

Read the source post in the MIT Sloan Management Review.