Microsoft workers protest use of HoloLens headsets for warfare

Posted February 25, 2019

Microsoft employees are demanding that the company cancel a contract supplying the U.S army with HoloLens headsets that, according to them, would turn a real-world battlefield into a videogame.

At the time, Microsoft president Brad Smith defended the company's decision to support the United States military, writing in a blog post, "We want the people of this country and especially the people who serve this country to know that we at Microsoft have their backs".

The controversy centers around Microsoft HoloLens, a $3,000 AR headset developed from a technology called Kinect, which was part of the tech giant's Xbox video game system.

"As employees and shareholders we do not want to become war profiteers", the letter concluded.

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In June 2018, backlash from employees prompted Google to backtrack and not renew a contract with the Defence Department after workers resigned in protest against using artificial intelligence for drone footage analysis.

The letter, which has been signed by more than 50 employees, argues that Microsoft has "crossed the line into weapons development" with the contract.

"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", said the workers in a letter that began circulating throughout the company on Friday.

The HoloLens displays from Microsoft are headsets that use Augmented Reality, which means users can see virtual imagery superimposed over the scenery in front of them.

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A year ago the company signed a $479 million contract with the US Army to provide headsets that could be used in training and combat.

The organizers behind the letter have said so far more than 100 Microsoft employees have signed the document. It has already worked with the USA and Israeli militaries for training applications but, as the letter points out, "it has never crossed the line" into weapons development. "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", they said.

The same presumably applies to developers who are now committed to avoiding working on the HoloLens, but as their statement points out, "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)".

The workers' coalition asked Nadella and Smith to "cease developing any and all weapons technologies, and draft a public-facing acceptable use policy clarifying this commitment". Microsoft employs nearly 135,000 people worldwide.

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Microsoft president Brad Smith, defended the company's decision to work with the USA military at the time, writing in a blogpost: "We want the people of this country and especially the people who serve this country to know that we at Microsoft have their backs". The group wrote that the company needs to do a better job informing engineers about what their work will be used for. Microsoft workers also past year raised public concerns and circulated an open letter protesting the company's work with US immigration authorities.