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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

While Google's AI ethics outreach efforts are mired in controversy, Microsoft has managed to engender significantly less animosity through a more systematic approach.

Driving the news: Google appointed a controversial outside advisory board, drew an onslaught of protest and disbanded the group a week later, succeeding only in antagonizing people of many different perspectives.

Microsoft's approach: The company began by soliciting a wide range of input, laid out its principles in a book, and is now incorporating those principles into its product development process.

  • CEO Satya Nadella penned an op-ed back in 2016 talking about shared responsibilities around AI.
  • A few months later, at the company's Build developer conference, he laid out the potential for an Orwellian future if AI isn't handled right.
  • That summer, Microsoft created Aether, an internal committee to advise and evaluate on AI ethics issues. The group, which includes more than 100 Microsoft employees, is led at the executive level by president Brad Smith and AI and research head Harry Shum.
  • Microsoft has stood fast against internal and external critics and defended its work with the U.S. government, including the military, while still pledging to evaluate each project to make sure it meets the company's ethical standards.
  • With some of the thorniest issues, such as facial recognition, the company has also called on legislators to create rules of the road.
  • Most recently, Microsoft has moved to make sure ethical considerations are incorporated into product release cycles in the same way that the company added security and privacy reviews in the past.

Google's approach: The company has taken what appears to be a more case-by-case approach despite the fact it, too, has published AI guidelines.

  • For example, the company agreed to take part in Project Maven — a facial recognition project for the U.S. military — only to agree to drop the contract amid an employee outcry.
  • Similarly, the company appointed an outside advisory committee only to disband it a week later, following protests, in particular over the inclusion of the president of the Heritage Foundation, someone known for views perceived as anti-transgender, anti-gay and anti-immigrant.
  • The process of coming up with the committee itself was flawed, some insiders say, with many of the company's own experts not consulted in the group's formation.
  • Meanwhile, Google actually has an internal committee to advise on AI issues, but it has kept a far lower profile than Microsoft's Aether. (Bloomberg ran a story reminding people that it exists.)

The bottom line: It's not clear that Google's positions are any more controversial than Microsoft's, but Google's haphazard execution has hampered its AI ethics effort. By stating its principles and sticking to them, even when taking some unpopular stances, Microsoft has displayed more political savvy.

Go deeper

DOJ seizes 36 U.S. website domains for Iranian government disinformation

Iran's President-Elect Ebrahim Raisi holds a press conference at Shahid Beheshti conference hall in Tehran on Monday. Photo: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

American officials seized 36 news website domains linked to Iran's government for spreading disinformation as part of a propaganda campaign, the Department of Justice said Tuesday.

Why it matters: The action comes at a time of heightened tension between the two countries, with Iran's hardline President-elect Ebrahim Raisi on Monday ruling out negotiating over missiles or meeting with President Biden as the two nations hold talks on returning Tehran to the 2015 nuclear deal.

NYT: Khashoggi's killers had paramilitary training in U.S.

A vigil for journalist Jamal Khashoggi outside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, following his killing in 2018 in Turkey. Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Several Saudis who took part in the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi had paramilitary training in the U.S. under a State Department contract a year before his 2018 death, the New York Times reported Tuesday.

Why it matters: While there's no evidence the department knew that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sanctioned Saudi officials to detain, kidnap and torture dissidents in 2017, the approval of such training underscores how "intensely intertwined" the U.S. has become with a nation known for human rights abuses, per the NYT.

U.S. attorney finalist trashes Labor secretary

Rachael Rollins and Marty Walsh. Photos: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images (Rollins); Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images (Walsh)

A finalist for U.S. attorney in Boston is publicly trashing the city's former mayor — Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.

Why it matters: Rachael Rollins’ approach is perpetuating scrutiny of a troubled Cabinet secretary and fellow Democrat — and hints at the independence she may exhibit if tapped for top federal prosecutor for the eastern half of Massachusetts.