A group of Microsoft employees is circulating a letter among the company’s over 130,000-person staff demanding that executives cancel a $479 million contract with the US Army.
According to that contract, which first became public in November 2018, Microsoft’s augmented-reality HoloLens technology would be used to train soldiers for battle, which some employees feel is at odds with Microsoft’s mission.
“We are alarmed that Microsoft is working to provide weapons technology to the U.S. Military, helping one country’s government ‘increase lethality’ using tools we built,” the employees wrote in copy of the letter shared with BuzzFeed News. “We did not sign up to develop weapons, and we demand a say in how our work is used.”
At the time of publishing, more than 50 employees had signed the letter, which was composed by a small group of individuals within Microsoft, addressed to CEO Satya Nadella and President Brad Smith, and made public internally on Friday. The workers tweeted a copy of the letter on Friday as well.
“We always appreciate feedback from employees and provide many avenues for their voices to be heard.” said a Microsoft spokesperson in response to a BuzzFeed News inquiry about the letter. “In fact, we heard from many employees throughout the fall. 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 June, Microsoft employees presented management with another petition demanding that the company cease collaborating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after it became public that the agency was separating immigrant families at the US border under orders from the Trump administration. Microsoft has said its technology was not being used to separate families and declined to cancel its contract with ICE.
The employee letter being signed today makes three demands: that Microsoft end its Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) contract with the US Army, that it “cease developing any and all weapons technologies, and draft a public-facing acceptable use policy clarifying this commitment,” and that it institute an “external ethics review board” for the evaluation of future projects.
The technology industry, including Microsoft, has long worked closely with the US military, which offers lucrative contracts. But recently, rank-and-file employees of tech companies have expressed ethical objections to working on tools meant for warfare and surveillance. Microsoft’s Smith published a blog post in October addressing the company’s work with the military.
Google employees made similar demands to those Microsoft employees came forward with today after a whistle-blower revealed the company was working with the Pentagon on Project Maven, an artificially intelligent drone warfare technology. The company promised not to renew its Pentagon contract after a dozen engineers resigned in protest; employees have continued to pressure Google’s management over issues like its censored search product for the China market (Project Dragonfly), disregard for sexual harassment and misconduct by executives, and forced arbitration for employees and contractors.
According to the details of Microsoft’s contract with the US Army, which are publicly available, the intent of the IVAS project is to “rapidly develop, test, and manufacture a single platform that Soldiers can use to Fight, Rehearse, and Train that provides increased lethality, mobility, and situational awareness necessary to achieve overmatch against our current and future adversaries.”
The authors of the petition feel that Microsoft’s work with the US Army in this case crosses an ethical line that some employees, including those who helped develop the HoloLens technology without awareness of this potential use, are not comfortable with.
“The application of HoloLens within the IVAS system is designed to help people kill. 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,” the letter reads.
While Microsoft does have an AI ethics review process, the employees behind the petition argue that the details of the IVAS contract prove the existing system is not transparent or “robust enough to prevent weapons development.”
You can read the full text of the Microsoft employee petition here:
Dear Satya Nadella and Brad Smith,
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 U.S. 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.
In November, Microsoft was awarded the $479 million Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) contract with the United States Department of the Army. The contract’s stated objective is to “rapidly develop, test, and manufacture a single platform that Soldiers can use to Fight, Rehearse, and Train that provides increased lethality, mobility, and situational awareness necessary to achieve overmatch against our current and future adversaries.”. Microsoft intends to apply its HoloLens augmented reality technology to this purpose. While the company has previously licensed tech to the U.S. Military, it has never crossed the line into weapons development. With this contract, it does. The application of HoloLens within the IVAS system is designed to help people kill. 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.
Intent to harm is not an acceptable use of our technology.
We demand that Microsoft:
1) Cancel the IVAS contract;
2) Cease developing any and all weapons technologies, and draft a public-facing acceptable use policy clarifying this commitment;
3) Appoint an independent, external ethics review board with the power to enforce and publicly validate compliance with its acceptable use policy.
Although a review process exists for ethics in AI, AETHER, it is opaque to Microsoft workers, and clearly not robust enough to prevent weapons development, as the IVAS contract demonstrates. Without such a policy, Microsoft fails to inform its engineers on the intent of the software they are building. Such a policy would also enable workers and the public to hold Microsoft accountable.
Brad Smith’s suggestion that employees concerned about working on unethical projects “would be allowed to move to other work within the company” ignores the problem that workers are not properly informed of the use of their 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 (RIP). These engineers have now lost their ability to make decisions about what they work on, instead finding themselves implicated as war profiteers.
Microsoft’s guidelines on accessibility and security go above and beyond because we care about our customers. We ask for the same approach to a policy on ethics and acceptable use of our technology. Making our products accessible to all audiences has required us to be proactive and unwavering about inclusion. If we don’t make the same commitment to be ethical, we won’t be. We must design against abuse and the potential to cause violence and harm.
Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and organization on the planet to do more. But implicit in that statement, we believe it is also Microsoft’s mission to empower every person and organization on the planet to do good. We also need to be mindful of who we’re empowering and what we’re empowering them to do. Extending this core mission to encompass warfare and disempower Microsoft employees, is disingenuous, as “every person” also means empowering us. As employees and shareholders we do not want to become war profiteers. To that end, we believe that Microsoft must stop in its activities to empower the U.S. Army’s ability to cause harm and violence.