Microsoft staff protest over Pentagon contract for augmented reality tech ‘designed to kill people’

Dozens of Microsoft employees have demanded the company pull out of a contract with the US military to provide augmented reality technology, stating that they refuse to be complicit in “warfare and oppression.”

Microsoft workers released a letter on Friday addressed to CEO Satya Nadella and President Brad Smith, in which they voiced opposition to the $479 million contract that aims to equip the US Army with up to 100,000 augmented reality headsets to be used in combat and for training. The Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) will be based on a preexisting Microsoft technology called HoloLens. Released in March 2016, HoloLens is capable of interposing digital images on whatever its wearer sees.

Signed by more than 50 employees, the letter states that the IVAS contract marks the first time that Microsoft has “crossed the line into weapons development.”

The application of HoloLens within the IVAS system is designed to help people kill,” they wrote. “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 employees said that they “did not sign up to develop weapons,” and demanded more control over “how our work is used.”

Microsoft acknowledged the petition – but insisted that the company has always been transparent and open to feedback from its workers.

“We always appreciate feedback from employees and provide many avenues for their voices to be heard,” a Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement responding to the petition. “In fact, we heard from many employees throughout the fall. As we said then, we’re committed to providing our technology to the US Department of Defense, which includes the US Army under this contract.”

The statement promised that Microsoft, as an “active corporate citizen,” would remain engaged in “the important ethical and public policy issues” surrounding artificial intelligence and the military.

Workers at America’s tech giants have increasingly spoken out against their companies’ business dealings with intelligence agencies and the Pentagon. Firms such as Apple, Google and Amazon have all faced scrutiny from employees and the public alike for their shady dealings with the US government.

In June, Google backed out of a contract with the Pentagon after facing internal dissent from angry workers. The tech giant had been enlisted to provide the US military with an advanced AI that would improve the targeting capabilities of weaponized drones.

Microsoft, however, seems to be sticking to its Pentagon-friendly guns. In December, the company’s president said that Microsoft would “provide the US military with access to the best technology… all the technology we create. Full stop.” He added that he wanted “Silicon Valley to know just how ethical and honorable a tradition the military has.”

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