The Strategist

Why Microsoft agrees to cooperate with military despite of protests?

12/05/2018 - 06:16

Microsoft won a contract for the supply of augmented reality glasses in the US Army. Despite the fact that the high-tech devices will be used "to increase lethality" on the battlefield, and despite of protests of its employees, the IT company does not intend to refuse the Pentagon money.

Jean-Pierre Dalbéra
Jean-Pierre Dalbéra
Microsoft, which created one of the most popular Windows operating systems, won a $ 480 million contract with the Pentagon. Now the IT giant will supply its HoloLens augmented reality glasses to the US Army to "increase lethality by enhancing the ability to detect, decide and engage before the enemy." The glasses will be used for training purposes as well as in real military actions.

“Augmented reality technology will help troops get more information and, therefore, make decisions faster. This new contract takes our long-running trusted relationship with the Ministry of Defense to a new level,” Microsoft spokesman said.

HoloLens glasses, like many other augmented reality devices, have not yet entered the mass market, and so the Pentagon will become the main buyer of this gadget. It is reported that Microsoft will deliver over 100 thousand devices. The contract with Microsoft has become one of the newest Pentagon business initiatives with companies that are not “traditional” contractors in the defense sector.

However, the wording “increasing lethality” doesn’t fit well with Microsoft’s original mission to bring innovation to the world.

HoloLens supply contract is not the first contract of Microsoft and the US Army. In October, it became known that the company planned to participate in a tender for creation of cloud services (JEDI) for the US Department of Defense. Responding to a question about contract objectives, Pentagon spokesman John H. Gibson answered quite clearly: "This program should increase the deadliness of our ministry."

Then, Microsoft employees signed an open letter to the company's management, refusing to participate in development of tools to be used for military operations.

“We came to Microsoft to help society, expecting that our technologies will not bring people harm and suffering,” the letter says.

However, Microsoft management believes otherwise. Brad Smith, the company's president, announced that the contract with the army will continue, and those employees who are experiencing moral difficulties can be transferred to other projects.

“We understand that some employees may have different views. We do not ask and do not expect that everyone who works at Microsoft will support the company's position,” Smith said in an official blog.

“We want the citizens of this country, and especially those who protect it, to know that Microsoft will always support you. They will have access to the most advanced technologies that we have created,” said the company's president, adding that Microsoft has been working with the Ministry of Defense for four decades.

Interestingly, Google, another major player in Silicon Valley, also participated in the tender for the creation of JEDI. However, the company decided to refuse later because of protests from staff members who expressed their dissatisfaction with cooperation with the army.

Several hundred Google employees said it was unacceptable to use artificial intelligence "to create weapons, illegal observation and development of technologies that cause harm."

Then the company, though not immediately, abandoned the multi-million dollar contract with the Pentagon, as Google’s principles allegedly prohibit using artificial intelligence to create weapons.

In turn, Amazon was more cooperative. The company plans to conclude a contract with the US Immigration and Customs Police (ICE) for the supply of Rekognition software. This program for face recognition will be used to search for illegal migrants in America.

At the same time, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said that when managing a large company, one must be prepared to make unpopular decisions, for example, agree to cooperate with the military.

Then, Amazon employees wrote a letter to Bezos and other top managers of the company, asking them to abandon development of Rekognition, as well as a program for working with data from Palantir, which is often used by US intelligence agencies.

Amazon employees explained their demand with violating American civil liberties and transforming the United States into a police state.

“Amazon often says about the value of leadership. If we want to lead, then we must choose between people and money. We can continue to sell police tracking systems, but we can stand for what is right. Either one or the other,” said the open letter. Nevertheless, it seems that Jeff Bezos has already made his choice.