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A group of Microsoft employees want to cancel a $479 million contract signed last November to help the U.S. Army “improve lethality” by developing augmented reality capabilities. In an internal letter released on Twitter on Friday, the employees denounce the lack of transparency in the way Microsoft communicates to employees the type of contracts they are working on.
In November 2018, Microsoft won a bid to license its augmented reality HoloLens to the U.S. military, supplying the Army with as many as 100,000 augmented reality lenses, according to Bloomberg, which will be used to “increase lethality by enhancing the ability to detect, decide and engage before the enemy.”
“We are a global coalition of Microsoft workers, and we refuse to create technology for warfare and oppression,” the letter reads. Five hours after the letter was made public, the Microsoft Workers 4 Good account tweeted: “We’ve reached over 100 signatures within the first day.”
On behalf of workers at Microsoft, we're releasing an open letter to Brad Smith and Satya Nadella, demanding for the cancelation of the IVAS contract with a call for stricter ethical guidelines.— Microsoft Workers 4 Good (@MsWorkers4) February 22, 2019
If you're a Microsoft employee you can sign at: https://t.co/958AhvIHO5 pic.twitter.com/uUZ5P4FJ7X
We've reached over 100 signature within the first day! https://t.co/Jk4ALY9SBY— Microsoft Workers 4 Good (@MsWorkers4) February 23, 2019
Bill Smith, President of Microsoft, wrote on Microsoft’s blog in October 2018: “We appreciate the important new ethical and policy issues that artificial intelligence is creating for weapons and warfare. We want to use our knowledge and voice as a corporate citizen to address these in a responsible way through the country’s civic and democratic processes.”
According to Recode, the employees’ letter reflects a larger movement within the tech industry, called “Tech won’t build it,” asking for a stop to morally questionable projects. It is also not the first time Microsoft employees denounced a contract on a moral basis; in June of last year, about 300 employees signed a letter denouncing a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), following the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their families at the southern U.S. border, according to The Verge.
In the latest letter, employees claim that they are often not aware that they are working on projects that may contradict their personal ethics. “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 […].”
The letter calls for Microsoft to cancel the contract, “Cease developing any and all weapons technologies, and draft a public-facing acceptable use policy clarifying this commitment,” and appoint an independent ethics board to enforce the policy. While the letter acknowledges that a review process for ethics in AI exists, “it is opaque to Microsoft workers and clearly not robust enough to prevent weapons development.”
Echoing a statement provided to Recode, a spokesperson from Microsoft told the Daily Dot:
We gave this issue careful consideration and outlined our perspective in an October 2018 blog. We always appreciate feedback from employees and provide many avenues for their voices to be heard. 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.
The Daily Dot reached out to the Microsoft Workers 4 Good Twitter account for comment, but did not receive a response by press time.
Stéphanie Fillion is a French-Canadian journalist covering politics and foreign affairs in Montreal, Canada. She has worked for Radio-Canada in Vancouver and was a San Paolo fellow at La Stampa in Turin. In 2015, she won the Eu-Canada Young Journalist Award. She holds an M.A. in Journalism, Politics and Global Affairs from Columbia Journalism School and a B.A. in Comparative Politics, History and Italian Studies from McGill University. Her work appeared in outlets such as Quartz, Vice News, Ipolitics, and PassBlue.