Microsoft Workers Revolt Over $480 Million Defense Contract

18 years after Microsoft's Halo began training kids to shoot bad guys using a heads-up display (HUD), dozens of Microsoft employees have signed a petition against the development of Halo-esque augmented reality HUDs for the US Army, reports CNBC

HoloLens is one of the leading consumer-grade headsets, however with only 50,000 units sold as of last November, it has yet to find a large-scale consumer application. 

The contract, awarded last November, could eventually lead to the military purchasing more than 100,000 headsets that project holographic images into the wearer's field of vision in order to "increase lethality by enhancing the ability to detect, decide and engage before the enemy," according to a government description of the program. 

"Augmented reality technology will provide troops with more and better information to make decisions. This new work extends our longstanding, trusted relationship with the Department of Defense to this new area," a Microsoft spokesman said in a November statement to Bloomberg

The U.S. Army and the Israeli military have already used Microsoft’s HoloLens devices in training, but plans for live combat would be a significant step forward. -Bloomberg

The contract was awarded to Microsoft through a 25-company bidding process designed to encourage the Army to ink deals with companies that aren't longstanding defense contractors. Other companies interested in the deal were Booz Allen Hamilton (of Edward Snowden fame), Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. 

An attendee wears a HoloLens headset at SXSW. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Microsoft employees doth protest

"We are a global coalition of Microsoft workers, and we refuse to create technology for warfare and oppression," reads a letter signed by more than 50 Microsoft employees after it began to circulate on Friday. 

"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 goes on to say. 

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." -CNBC

The employees have demanded that Microsoft cancel the IVAS contract, cease all work on defense technology and create a public policy clarifying these commitments. The letter also demands an independent ethics review board to ensure compliance. 

"A lot of people feel uncomfortable about being involved in war-related business or producing weapons that hurt other people," said one Microsoft employee who was not authorized to speak on the record. "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'," said software developer Monte Michaelis - who worked on HoloLens for two years before leaving Microsoft in 2018.

"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."

As CNBC notes, the letter comes just days before Microsoft is expected to roll out HoloLens 2 - which is expected to be lighter, more comfortable, and contain an upgraded display. 

Last June, over 100 Microsoft employees protested the company's project for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) - demanding that the company immediately stop working with the agency.