Microsoft is pushing ahead with the delivery of the mixed reality technology to the U.S. Army—worth $479 million—despite protesting employees.
NEWSREP reported that last Friday a group of 50 Microsoft employees wrote an open letter addressed to CEO Satya Nadella and President Brad Smith. The group, calling themselves “Microsoft Workers 4 Good” demanded in the letter:
- Cancel the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS);
- Cease developing any and all weapons technology, and draft a public facing use policy clarifying this commitment;
- Appoint an independent, external ethics review board with the power to enforce and publicly validate compliance with its acceptable use policy.
However, Microsoft refuses to back down from the contract, an employee spokesman told Nextgov on Monday. The company took a different stance to Google, which backed out of the Maven program earlier last year amid growing protest of its workers.
The spokesperson stated to Nextgov: “We always appreciate feedback from employees and provide many avenues for their voices to be heard—in fact, we heard from many employees throughout the fall,” he said, adding, “We’re committed to providing our technology to the U.S. Department of Defense … [and] we’ll remain engaged as an active corporate citizen in addressing the important ethical and public policy issues relating to AI and the military.”
In an interview with CNN Business on Monday, Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella defended the agreement to provide the U.S. Army with the HoloLens technology. He affirmed the company won’t “withhold technology” from democratic governments.
“We made a principled decision that we’re not going to withhold technology from institutions that we have elected in democracies to protect the freedoms we enjoy,” Nadella said. “We were very transparent about that decision and we’ll continue to have that dialogue [with employees].”
On the same day, Microsoft premiered its latest version of the HoloLens, called HoloLens 2, at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. However, the latest version of the mixed reality headset provides significant improvements. Now, with the help of machine learning, and artificial intelligence, it can determine the objects in the frame.
Microsoft clearly positions itself as an ally to the Pentagon where others have backed out—namely Google and Amazon—with contracts such as the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract, which represents a $10 billion project to build cloud services for the Department of Defense (DOD). The JEDI bid by Microsoft last year also faced employee protest, which prompted Microsoft President Brad Smith to pen a letter in support for it.
Some analysts argue the positions of tech giants like Google and Facebook are strange, since they support repressive regimes as they crack down on their people. For example, the Dragonfly search engine that Google built to work within the Chinese internet censorship infrastructure, or the potential relocation of Facebook servers inside Russia. Yet, Google dropped out of Project Maven and the JEDI program, which are important to the DOD.
Financially and ethically, we’ll soon learn which of the two paths was the smarter one.
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