Microsoft workers yesterday demanded that the company abort a $479 million contract providing the Army with HoloLens headsets, calling it a corruption of designers’ and engineers’ earlier work and an affront to those opposed to designing weapons for war.
In a letter addressed to Microsoft’s chief executive and its president, Microsoft Workers 4 Good, an organization of employees created at the end of January, also demanded that the company stop developing any weapons technologies, commit to an acceptable use policy for its products, and appoint an ethics board to audit that commitment.
Microsoft Workers 4 Good tweeted the letter yesterday afternoon; by late last night, the group said more than 100 employees had signed it.
In November, Microsoft and the Army reached an agreement to develop an “Integrated Visual Augmentation System,” based on the Hololens augmented reality platform. The Army, according to reports at that time, explicitly said the technology is meant to “increase lethality by enhancing the ability to detect, decide and engage before the enemy.”
Hololens was announced in January 2015 and has yet to launch as a consumer product. A development kit sells for around $3,000. Reports in late 2018 suggested that Microsoft has sold about 50,000 of the devices. The Army by itself would buy twice that amount in the contract.
“The application of HoloLens within the [Integrated Visual Augmentation System] is designed to help people kill,” the employee letter said. “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.”
In November, Microsoft president Brad Smith defended the company’s collaboration with the military, noting that the two have worked together for more than 30 years. “We believe in the strong defense of the United States and we want the people who defend it to have access to the nation’s best technology, including from Microsoft,” Smith said. He said that employees who opposed developing technologies for the military could be accommodated by a transfer to other projects or work teams within the company.
The employee group on Friday said that “ignores the problem that workers are not properly informed of the use of their work.” The letter noted that “many engineers contributed to HoloLens before this contract even existed,” on the assumption it would be applied to fields as disparate as architecture, surgery, automotive design and space exploration. “These engineers have now lost their ability to make decisions about what they work on, instead finding themselves implicated as war profiteers.”
Microsoft Workers 4 Good, according to its Twitter page, organized so that workers could “hold Microsoft accountable to their stated values.” It has previously criticized the company’s political action committee for making contributions “to candidates not acting in the interest of Microsoft’s core values” — specifically, conservative or right-wing politicians.
Friday’s letter was directed at Smith and Satya Nadella, the Microsoft CEO. A Microsoft spokesperson, in a statement to The Guardian, did not respond to the substance of the group’s criticisms but said the company “always appreciates feedback from employees.”