Microsoft will not end its $479m HoloLens military contract, CEO confirms

26 Feb 2019

Microsoft building. Image: wolterke/Depositphotos

Amid staff opprobrium, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has said that the company will not halt its plans to bring HoloLens technology to the US Army.

Microsoft will proceed with a controversial $479m contract with the US Army, company CEO Satya Nadella has confirmed.

“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 explained to CNN Business at Mobile World Congress. “We were very transparent about that decision and we’ll continue to have that dialogue [with employees].”

The confirmation comes in the wake of a letter sent to both Nadella and Microsoft president Brad Smith from Microsoft staff urging executives not to work any further on the deal. TechCrunch reports that the letter has racked up more than 200 signatures from workers.

AR-powered troops

Microsoft secured a contract in 2018, beating out start-up Magic Leap, to provide its HoloLens augmented reality (AR) headsets to the military. The headsets will be used by troops for combat training and to enable “25 bloodless battles before the first battle”.

The military-grade HoloLens is, according to individuals who viewed the original Microsoft bid tender document, considerably more powerful than the commercial model. Military headsets will weigh less than a kilogram and have a field of view of between 55 and 110 degrees. When in use by military personnel, the HoloLens will be able to track specific weapons and simulate fire coming from them. The military also hopes to incorporate night vision, thermal sensing and an ability to measure the wearer’s vital signs into the devices.

‘Microsoft Workers 4 Good’

Microsoft employee protest against the development reached fever pitch when a group of workers calling itself ‘Microsoft Workers 4 Good’ posted an open letter outlining dissatisfaction.

The letter reads: “We are a global coalition of Microsoft workers, and we refuse to create technology for warfare and oppression.

“We are alarmed that Microsoft is working to provide weapons 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 letter demands that Microsoft cease the contract, cease development of “any and all weapons technology” and appoint an independent external ethics review board with the power to enforce compliance with its acceptable use policy.

Microsoft has been embroiled in a lot of controversy due to government contracts of late. In January 2018, Microsoft publicised the partnership between its Azure cloud platform and the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, saying Microsoft was “proud to support” its efforts.

Many staff members staunchly opposed the partnership, disavowing reported actions by the agency, which has seen families seeking asylum detained, separated and confined in cages. One staffer told Gizmodo under cloak of anonymity: “I’ll seriously consider leaving if I’m not happy with how they handle this.”

At the time, Microsoft condemned family separation but argued that it was not involved with any of ICE’s more dubious practices.

The tech industry and the military-industrial complex

Employees at some of the largest tech firms in the world have continued to grapple with tech’s progression towards the military-industrial complex. In May 2018, close to a dozen Google employees left the company after raising concerns about an AI project entitled Project Maven.

Project Maven, a US Pentagon programme, proposed using AI technology to interpret drone footage and improve strike accuracy. Employees opposed the idea that they would be caught up in the “business of war” and expressed upset over the ethical concerns surrounding AI use in drone attacks. They also raised concerns over the political statement a company makes when partnering with a country’s military.

In response, Google pledged not to renew Project Maven and said it would work on ethical guidelines to govern how it manages decisions relating to intelligence and defence contracts.

Yet some commentators have argued that getting involved with the Department of Defense is the inevitable fate of any company working on cutting-edge technology.

The relationship between science and war has always been fraught, and many scientists have tried, occasionally in vain, to push back against what they see to be unethical or dangerous developments. In the 1940s, Manhattan Project scientists urged president Truman to exercise caution when deploying the atomic bomb, much like how modern scientists are working to stop the proliferation of autonomous weapons.

Microsoft building. Image: wolterke/Depositphotos

Updated, 2.12pm, 26 February 2019: This article was updated to clarify that Microsoft publicised the partnership between Azure and ICE in January 2018, not June.

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic