Microsoft workers protest: 'Cancel US Army HoloLens super-soldier contract'

Microsoft employees say they didn't sign up to build weapons, so the company should pull out of its $480m deal.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

Some Microsoft workers have called on the company to ditch its $480m contract with the US Army to provide up to 100,000 battle-ready HoloLens headsets. 

Microsoft in November landed a deal to provide HoloLens augmented-reality headsets for the US Army's Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) Program. IVAS aims to improve soldiers' close-combat killing capabilities in urban environments. 

"Soldier lethality will be vastly improved through cognitive training and advanced sensors, enabling squads to be first to detect, decide, and engage. Accelerated development of these capabilities is necessary to recover and maintain overmatch," the US Army said in a tender document.

A group of Microsoft workers using the Twitter handle 'Microsoft Workers 4 Good' on Friday posted an open letter to the company's chief legal counsel, Brad Smith, and CEO Satya Nadella, calling on them to cancel the IVAS contract. 

"We are alarmed that Microsoft is working to provide weapon technology to the US Military, helping one country's government 'increase lethality' using tools we built. We did not sign up to develop weapons, and we demand a say in how our work is used," the group wrote. 

The group says its mission is to "empower every worker to hold Microsoft accountable to their stated values" and claims to have over 150 signatures from fellow employees.

"While the company has previously licensed tech to the US Military, it has never crossed the line into weapons development," the letter reads. 

"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."    

The Microsoft staff protest over HoloLens echoes Google employees' opposition to developing artificial-intelligence programs for detecting humans and objects in drone video-surveillance footage. 

SEE: Executive's guide to the business value of VR and AR (free ebook)    

Google as a result withdrew from the Pentagon's Project Maven program and published a set of AI principles, in which it pledged never to develop AI that could cause harm. The company cited its AI principles as a key reason for pulling out of the $10bn JEDI cloud contract with the Pentagon.   

Microsoft's Smith in October defended the company's ongoing participation in the JEDI bid process and said employees who objected to working on defense projects could simply move to another division. 

Microsoft employees say Smith's suggestion "ignores the problem that workers are not properly informed of the use of their work". 

Microsoft's existing review process for ethics in AI is "opaque to Microsoft workers" and isn't strict enough to prevent Microsoft from developing weapons, according to the protesting employees. 

"There are many engineers who contributed to HoloLens before this [IVAS] contract even existed, believing it would be used 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). These engineers have now lost their ability to make decisions about what they work on, instead finding themselves implicated as war profiteers."  

Microsoft said in a statement to ZDNet's sister site CNET it had stated its position on work for the US Department of Defense in Smith's October blog post. 

"We're committed to providing our technology to the US Department of Defense, which includes the US Army under this contract. As we've also said, we'll remain engaged as an active corporate citizen in addressing the important ethical and public-policy issues relating to AI and the military," the spokesperson said. 

Microsoft employees last year protested the company's work to modernize IT for the Immigration and Customers Enforcement (ICE) to help it use deep learning for facial recognition. 

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Microsoft workers call for end to HoloLens contract with US Army  CNET

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

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