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'We did not sign up to develop weapons': Microsoft workers protest $480m HoloLens military deal

The open letter comes days before Microsoft is expected to unveil HoloLens 2, an upgraded version of its augmented reality headset, at an event Sunday.
Image: Satya Nadella
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella gestures during the keynote address of the Build Conference on April 2, in San Francisco. Microsoft kicked off its annual conference for software developers, with new updates to the Windows 8 operating system and upcoming features for Windows Phone and Xbox.Eric Risberg / AP file

Dozens of Microsoft employees have signed a letter protesting the company’s $480 million contract to supply the U.S. Army with augmented-reality headsets intended for use on the battlefield.

Under the terms of the deal, the headsets, which place holographic images into the wearer’s field of vision, would be adapted to “increase lethality” by “enhancing the ability to detect, decide and engage before the enemy,” according to a government description of the project. Microsoft was awarded the contract in November.

“We are a global coalition of Microsoft workers, and we refuse to create technology for warfare and oppression,” the employees state in the letter, which was published on an internal message board and circulated via email to employees at the company Friday. More than 100 Microsoft employees signed their names to the letter. Microsoft employs almost 135,000 people worldwide.

“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 said.

Members of a design team at Cirque du Soleil demonstrate use of Microsoft's HoloLens device in helping to virtually design a set at the Microsoft Build 2017 developers conference in Seattle on May 11, 2017.
Members of a design team at Cirque du Soleil demonstrate use of Microsoft's HoloLens device in helping to virtually design a set at the Microsoft Build 2017 developers conference in Seattle on May 11, 2017.Elaine Thompson / AP file

The letter, addressed to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, and president and chief legal officer Brad Smith, notes that the company has previously licensed technology to the military — including HoloLens for use in training — but has never before “crossed the line into weapons development.”

It adds that the program, officially called the Integrated Visual Augmentation System, turns “warfare into a simulated ‘video game,’ further distancing soldiers from the grim stakes of war and the reality of bloodshed.”

The signatories demand that Microsoft cancel the IVAS contract, cease to develop weapons technology and draft an acceptable use policy publicly clarifying those commitments. They also demand an independent ethics review board to ensure compliance with this policy.

The open letter comes days before Microsoft is expected to unveil HoloLens 2, an upgraded version of its augmented-reality headset, at an event Sunday at Mobile World Congress, an annual technology conference in Barcelona, Spain.

“A lot of people feel uncomfortable about being involved in war-related business or producing weapons that hurt other people,” one Microsoft employee, who was not authorized to speak publicly, told NBC News. “To me, it’s a basic violation of Microsoft’s mission statement to empower every person and organization on the planet to do more.”

“Although I believe in security and military action for a morally justifiable cause, I take issue with the language of ‘lethality,’” software developer Monte Michaelis added. Michaelis worked on HoloLens for two years but left Microsoft in 2018 to join New York City-based content agency Arkadium. “There are appropriate applications for mixed reality in a military setting, but I would not want to be designing an experience where my goal was to more efficiently kill people.”

This is not the first time that Microsoft employees have criticized the company’s cooperation with the military and law enforcement. In June last year, more than 100 employees protested the technology company’s work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and demanded it stop working with the agency, which had been separating migrant children from their parents at the United States-Mexico border.

“We gave this issue careful consideration and outlined our perspective in an October 2018 blog. We always appreciate feedback from employees and provide many avenues for their voices to be heard. In fact, we heard from many employees throughout the fall," a Microsoft spokesperson said in an email. "As we said then, we’re committed to providing our technology to the U.S. Department of Defense, which includes the U.S. 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.”

In October last year, employees published a letter calling on executives to withdraw a proposed bid for the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure contract, a $10 billion project to build cloud services for artificial intelligence to be used by the military.

Later that month, Smith wrote in a blog post that the company would continue to sell technologies, including artificial intelligence and augmented reality, to the military.

“We can’t expect these new developments to be addressed wisely if the people in the tech sector who know the most about technology withdraw from the conversation,” he said.

Smith added that employees who did not want to work on a project for ethical or other reasons could move into a different role within the company.

The signatories to this week’s open letter said that this offer ignores the fact that “workers are not properly informed of the use of the work.”

“There are many engineers who contributed to HoloLens before this 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.”

“These engineers have now lost their ability to make decisions about what they work on, instead finding themselves implicated as war profiteers.”