Microsoft Responds to HoloLens Military Training Concerns (Update)

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Updated, 2/25/19, 12:42pm PT: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella responded to employees' petition to end the HoloLens contract with the U.S. Army in an interview with CNN Business. "We made a principled decision that we're not going to withhold technology from institutions that we have elected in democracies to protect the freedoms we enjoy," he said. "We were very transparent about that decision and we'll continue to have that dialogue [with employees]." He also said that it wasn't about what 100 people wanted, it was about "being a responsible corporate citizen in a democracy."

Original article, 2/23/19, 12:08pm PT:

Microsoft employees demanded the cancellation of a U.S. Army contract through which the HoloLens augmented reality headset would be used to train soldiers. The petition backing the demand was signed by more than 50 employees and addressed to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and chief legal officer Brad Smith.

The contract was made public in November 2018. It's called the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) contract, and it's worth $479 million to Microsoft. Employees who signed the petition to cancel the contract are essentially asking the company to back down from a deal worth nearly half a billion dollars. (To start.)

BuzzFeed News obtained a copy of the petition, which said in part: “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.”

This isn't the first time Microsoft employees have demanded that their employer stop offering its technologies to the U.S. government. They did the same thing in June 2018 to protest Microsoft's work with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency following reports of mistreatment.

Other tech workers have made similar demands: Google employees pressured the company into ending its artificial intelligence contract with the Pentagon. Unlike Microsoft, which has ignored employees' efforts to cancel these contracts, Google decided to end the partnership. (Though it's still a defense contractor.)

These efforts are part of a larger trend which is seeing tech workers push back against the ways the fruits of their labor are being used. They want their employers to behave ethically--and in accordance with their own political views--rather than selling advanced technologies without considering the ramifications.

To its credit, Microsoft has made those ramifications a central part of its research into things like facial recognition, which Smith has published several blog posts about over the last year. It's not hard to guess why the company's employees would then be surprised about a contract meant to make soldiers better killers.

Not that the U.S. Army would be able to train too many soldiers via the IVAS contract. HoloLens dev kits cost $3,000--even if the entire contract went towards equipment procurement, that would only buy roughly 160,000 headsets. Adding on maintenance fees, software development, and other costs would reduce that number.

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Nathaniel Mott
Freelance News & Features Writer

Nathaniel Mott is a freelance news and features writer for Tom's Hardware US, covering breaking news, security, and the silliest aspects of the tech industry.