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Microsoft CEO defends US Army HoloLens contract intended to “increase lethality”

A $480 million US military contract has provoked indignation amongst Microsoft employees

Microsoft campus

Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, has defended Microsoft’s HoloLens contract with the US military. The contract has received criticism from both Microsoft’s employees and many in the tech community as a whole, yet the company seems reluctant to let this particular $480 million contract slip away.

IVAS, or Integrated Visual Augmentation System, is a military contract awarded to Microsoft on November 20, 2018 by the US Army. The sum of the contract is $479,197,708.33, to the penny, and Microsoft needs to deliver prototype devices reportedly totalling 100,000 HoloLens AR headsets to complete its part of the deal. These will be bespoke units tailored to the needs of deployed soldiers.

Many in the tech community and beyond were dismayed by the contract. A group called ‘Microsoft Workers 4 Good’ recently published an open letter to Nadella calling for the immediate cancellation of the IVAS contract, for Microsoft to cease all development on weapons technologies, and for the board to appoint an independent ethics board to make sure the company sticks to its word.

The group claims Microsoft has crossed the line into weapons development due to the contract’s intended purpose for “increased lethality, mobility, and situational awareness necessary to achieve overmatch against our current and future adversaries.”

“We did not sign up to develop weapons,” the group says, “and we demand a say in how our work is used.”

Nadella has since responded in an interview with CNN Business (via Gamasutra).

“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,” Nadella says to CNN Business.

“We were very transparent about that decision and we’ll continue to have that dialogue,” he continues. “It’s really about being a responsible corporate citizen in a democracy.”

The letter from the group was published just days before Microsoft announced the HoloLens 2, an enterprise venture improving on the rather disappointing hardware of the first-gen unit.

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This isn’t the first time a tech company has faced internal revolt after signing a controversial contract. Amazon and Google employees have also raised concerns over military and police contracts, especially the former’s involvement in facial recognition tools and cloud services. And Microsoft’s been here before, previously facing outcry over its involvement with ICE, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

The Microsoft Workers 4 Good letter has currently been signed by over 250 employees.