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Microsoft Employees Express Their Objection to the HoloLens Army Contract

By Bill Toulas / February 23, 2019

Around fifty Microsoft employees have signed a letter that is addressed to Satya Nadella and Brad Smith, the company’s CEO, and CLO. In the letter, they raise concerns about the ethical aspect of using the HoloLens augmented reality device for combat, helping the U.S. and Israeli military to 'increase lethality' by using tools that they built. The employees suggest canceling the $480 million contract that Microsoft won in November 2018, the development of a strict permitted usage context for the company’s devices, and the formulation of an ethics board that enforces the designated policy.

This isn’t exactly coming as a surprise to Microsoft’s board of directors, as they were the receptors of similar complaints in the past, urging their teams to express their voice and provide feedback. This is why they have offered their employees the opportunity to work on other projects that are in line with their ethical stance. In addition to that, Microsoft is a US company, so providing 'battlefield versions' of their consumer products is something that they consider the right thing to do from a patriotic perspective.

The contract with the U.S. Department of Defense foresees the supply of 100,000 HoloLens headsets that will be empowered by features that are not present in the consumer version, such as night vision, thermal sensing, measurement of vital signs, monitoring of concussions, and even hearing protection. Already, thousands of HoloLens sets have found their way to the training camps of the US Army and the Israeli military, allowing soldiers to explore new possibilities that open up with these devices, and how to take advantage of this pioneering technology to get an edge against the enemy.

It is clear that many of the engineers working behind the HoloLens device are not happy with this type of use-case scenarios. They envision HoloLens as a productivity tool that helps engineers and architects foresee trouble with their designs or an entertainment device that allows people to dive into the content they consume with unprecedented immersion. Getting more lethal doesn’t fit the context of either of these pillars, so for them, using HoloLens in the military crosses the line.

Tech giants are continually fighting this internal opposition, as weighing huge contracts against them can be very hard. After all, the world hasn’t changed, global peace hasn’t been established, and everyone is on a race to win the AI and novel-tech combat. US tech giants are expected to be the driving force of the race for the US Army, as they possess the required tools and know-how. If they stumble upon ethical obstacles, they will not solve the actual problem, but instead, let someone else win. At least that’s how the US government and the higher executives of these companies see it.

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