Microsoft CEO Nadella: HoloLens for war is fine if it's used by a democracy

Microsoft's Satya Nadella defines when it's OK to use its HoloLens technology for military purposes.

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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has defended the company's $480m contract to supply HoloLens-for-war headsets to the US Army. 

Responding to ethical questions raised by Microsoft staff this week, Nadella told CNN the company has made a "principled decision" about the military contract and approves selling its HoloLens augmented-reality headsets for war, provided it is to nations with democratically elected 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," he told CNN at Mobile World Congress.

"We were very transparent about that decision and we'll continue to have that dialogue [with employees]," he added.

Microsoft could supply over 100,000 HoloLens headsets to the US Army under the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) Program, which aims to improve "soldier lethality" through "cognitive training and advanced sensors". 

Microsoft workers behind the petition against the HoloLens military deal claim to now have 250 signatures from fellow employees, up from 150 yesterday. 

The group posted an open letter over the weekend to Nadella and Microsoft VP and chief legal counsel Brad Smith, calling on them to cancel the Army HoloLens deal. 

"We want to make it absolutely clear. This letter is explicitly raising concerns about producing technology that harms others," the group said from the Twitter account "Microsoft Workers 4 Good". 

SEE: How to implement AI and machine learning (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

The workers say they didn't sign up to develop weapons and are calling on Microsoft to give them a say in how the technology is being used. 

They also argue that Microsoft's AI ethics review process is "opaque" to employees and loose enough to allow the company to develop weapons. 

Google in June published a set of AI principles and pledged not to develop software that could be used to harm people following an employee protest over its contribution to the Pentagon's Project Maven video-analysis program

Nadella was at MWC to launch the $3,500 HoloLens 2, which it is betting will be the next frontier of computing after missing the smartphone boom. The headset is available for preorder today and will ship later this year. 

Nadella said Microsoft's approach to HoloLens was "about putting the human first", while HoloLens boss Alex Kipman said "the goal is these things will transform humans". 

Human transformation through Microsoft's wearable is the primary aim of the Army's IVAS program. The Army wants the customized HoloLens headsets to provide night-vision capabilities, real-time metrics on soldiers' physical state, low-light detection of people at a distance of 150 meters, and thermal recognition of people at 300 meters. 

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CEO Satya Nadella says Microsoft has made a "principled decision" about the military contract.

Image: Microsoft

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"We did not sign up to develop weapons," says the group.