Approximately 50 Microsoft personnel so far stated in a petition they “do not want to become war profiteers.” This comes after the software company signed a $480 million contract to provide the U.S. army with HoloLens, an augmented reality system.
After a copy of the petition appeared on Twitter Friday afternoon, a Microsoft employee told the Guardian that it further states, “We did not sign up to develop weapons, and we demand a say in how our work is used.”
On behalf of workers at Microsoft, we're releasing an open letter to Brad Smith and Satya Nadella, demanding for the cancelation of the IVAS contract with a call for stricter ethical guidelines.
If you're a Microsoft employee you can sign at: https://t.co/958AhvIHO5 pic.twitter.com/uUZ5P4FJ7X
— Microsoft Workers 4 Good (@MsWorkers4) February 22, 2019
Microsoft’s HoloLens works on the principle of mixed reality, wherein the real world is covered with an artificial layer produced by the headset. Think of the application as somewhere between the ambitious Google Glass and the complete virtual reality (VR) experience of the Oculus Rift. The HoloLens started it out as the doomed Kinect technology, developed for the Xbox gaming console
The intent of HoloLens, according to the letter and many who worked on its initial development, would be “to help architects and engineers build buildings and cars, to help teach people how to perform surgery or play the piano, to push the boundaries of gaming, and to connect with the Mars Rover (RIP).”
However, according to Bloomberg, under the terms of the U.S. Army contract, the HoloLens would be used to “increase lethality by enhancing the ability to detect, decide and engage before the enemy”, according to Bloomberg.
“While [Microsoft] has previously licensed the tech to the U.S. Military, it has never crossed the line into weapons development,” the employees’ letter asserts. “With this contract, it does. The application of HoloLens within the IVAS system is designed to help people kill. It will be deployed on the battlefield, and works by turning warfare into a simulated ‘video game’, further distancing soldiers from the grim stakes of war and the reality of bloodshed.”
This protest isn’t a surprise, since a growing divide between Silicon Valley and the Pentagon was first reported when Google employees protested the company’s involvement in the Maven project. Workers at Amazon, Microsoft, and Salesforce have since joined the growing movement. This disconnect is only exacerbated in the current political climate.
I believe that Microsoft employees mean well but don’t see the other side. Their technology would probably save lives of troops in theatre, limit collateral damage, and improve training. In an environment where everyone gets outraged, there needs to be a balanced discussion on this topic. It also needs greater involvement by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) in Silicon Valley to build awareness of what it does.
In a blog post last year, Microsoft President Brad Smith said: “We want the people of this country and especially the people who serve this country to know that we at Microsoft have their backs.” He added the company would provide support for policies and legislation to ensure technology was used “responsibly and ethically” and that Microsoft would “support talent mobility” for employees who didn’t want to work on certain projects “for whatever reason.”
Meanwhile, in China (a near-peer competitor), the government and private sector are working hand-in-glove to develop military tech. It also invests heavily in the realms of artificial intelligence and quantum computing. The DoD and the White House presented a path forward on both technologies, but it needs the aid of America’s best and brightest to stay ahead.