February 23, 2019 – A group of Microsoft employees have called for the company to end a USD $479 million contract with the US Army. The coalition of Microsoft staff, which goes by the Twitter handle ‘Microsoft Workers 4 Good’, sent a tweet on Friday with an open letter addressed to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, and President Brad Smith.
The open letter demanded that Microsoft:
- Cancel a recently awarded Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) contract;
- Cease developing any and all weapons technologies, and draft a public-facing acceptable 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.
The IVAS contract, which was awarded to Microsoft by the Army in November 2018, called for the supply of 2,550 IVAS prototypes in four increments over a 24 month period. The contract also outlined that a desired end state of the platform would be one that provides “increased lethality”.
The open letter from staff continued to state that “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.”
Aside from the obvious ethical dilemma behind the development of tools to assist in warfare, Microsoft was also criticised in the letter about its ethics policies, with the company being called out for “failing to inform its engineers on the intent of the software they are building”, with the addition that “engineers have now lost their ability to make decisions about what they work on, instead finding themselves implicated as war profiteers.”
The defense sector remains an extremely lucrative market, with spending estimated at USD $1,739 billion in 2017 (source SIPIRI). The US tops this list, with its 2017 military expenditure of USD $610 billion totalling more than the next seven highest-spending countries combined.
Investment in new warfare technologies seems an inevitable part of this spending process, and as companies such as Microsoft continue to innovate, it therefore seems that there will continue to be an option to apply these innovations to uses beyond their initial intended purposes.
The open letter finished with staff calling for Microsoft to “stop in its activities to empower the US Army’s ability to cause harm and violence.” Whether Microsoft will choose to listen to their staff on this matter or not is yet to be seen. However, with the US Army set on advancing its tactical capabilities and enhancing situational awareness for its troops through the use of augmented reality, the likelihood is that if Microsoft choose to cancel the contract, the US Army will simply go elsewhere for its ‘HUD 3.0’ technology.
Image credit: US Army