Professionalism/Microsoft Employees, Project JEDI, and HoloLens
Microsoft Corporation has a complex relationship with the United States Department of Defense. Historically, the two entities have worked together often, but two current projects, HoloLens (IVAS) and Project JEDI, have shed light on divergent opinions within Microsoft. While company leadership supports involvement in the defense sector, employees are less receptive to working with the military. These differing viewpoints are illustrated by statements produced by both Microsoft executives and Microsoft employees. The disagreements within Microsoft demonstrate a common problem in the tech sector, as technology such as augmented reality or cloud computing has begun to play a stronger role in warfare and military operations.
Microsoft was founded on April 4, 1975 by Harvard student Bill Gates and Boston programmer Paul Allen. Its initial purpose was to create microprocessors and software—originally for the Altair 8800, an early personal computer. Presently, the mission statement is “to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more.” The current CEO, Satya Nadella, echoes this sentiment and referred to Microsoft as a "do more company" when he succeeded Steve Ballmer in 2014 to become the company's 3rd CEO.
Microsoft Execs vs. EmployeesEdit
In response to Microsoft's increasingly involved commerce with the United States Government, Microsoft's President, Brad Smith, said in a blog post titled "Technology and the US military" that company leadership has "worked with the U.S. Department of Defense on a longstanding and reliable basis for four decades," and that they "are proud of this relationship, as we are of the many military veterans we employ.” Smith also briefly acknowledged the ethical issues that come with using Microsoft technology such as artificial intelligence and augmented reality in a military context. He and the other executives are aligned in a message that claims to support the people who defend the United States and asserts that engaging the debate about AI usage for the Department of Defense directly allows the company to approach implementation responsibly. It is important to make a distinction between Microsoft Executives and the company's employees, as they have different agendas resulting in conflict between leadership decision making and individual values.
Microsoft's Relationship with the Department of DefenseEdit
On Microsoft's Government Defense & Intelligence page, their marketing team posted a statement that said, “helping defense and intelligence agencies foster a safer more secure world.” The relationship between Microsoft and the military is both mutual and long standing. When the army transitioned to Windows 10 in 2016, the Former Secretary of Defense, Ashton B. Carter, said "Microsoft has been a great partner to the DOD." On Microsoft's end, they offer an array of industry specific services including Windows, the operating system that the Army now utilizes, Office 365 (a suite of productivity apps like Outlook, Word, PowerPoint, Excel, etc.), and Azure—their cloud computing service that competes with Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google Cloud Platform (GCP). Each of these are catered to industries, such as Defense & Intelligence.
Although the HoloLens was intended for first-line workers, a modified version is used in the Army's Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS). The goal of the IVAS contract is to employ 2,550 IVAS prototypes to the Army and Marine Corps to achieve overmatch against near-peer threats identified in the National Defense Strategy and provide squad synthetic training environments. IVAS will be featured with a variety of imaging sensors, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to provide a fully integrated day/night combat capability at the forward edge of the battlefield. The Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) FY19 Annual Report mentions the term “lethality,” which has sparked conflict between Microsoft executives and employees.
Many employees responded negatively to Microsoft’s partnership with the DoD. On February 22, 2019, the “Microsoft Workers 4 Good” tweeted an open letter, “HoloLens for Good, Not War,” to Brad Smith and Satya Nadella. The letter states that “the application of HoloLens within the IVAS system is designed to help people kill” and that Microsoft employees did not sign up to develop weapons and “refuse to create technology for warfare and oppression". The employees further argue that “Microsoft fails to inform its engineers on the intent of the software they are building” and that engineers have now lost their ability to make decisions about what they work on. There exists a lack of transparency between the company and its employees, and as a result there is an imbalance between the external values of the company and those of Microsoft employees. To mitigate this, Microsoft employee demands included the cancellation of the contract, discontinuation of “any and all” development of weapons technologies, organization of a public policy statement on the matter, and creation of a new “independent, external ethics review board” that would oversee compliance with that policy.
Although Microsoft employees do not support the HoloLens project, Microsoft executives such as Satya Nadella plan to continue it. Nadella believes that it is Microsoft’s corporate responsibility to supply technology to the military. In a statement, Nadella said that Microsoft will not "withhold technology" from democratic governments. He states that “it’s not about taking arbitrary action by a single company, it’s not about 50 people or even 100,000 people in a company, it’s really about being a responsible corporate citizen in a democracy.” Brad Smith endorses this, saying “we believe in the strong defense of the US and we want the people who defend it to have access to the nation’s best technology, including from Microsoft.” While Microsoft executives are aware of the ethical issues that arise from using their technology for weapons and warfare, Smith claims that “we want to use our knowledge and voice as a corporate citizen to address these in a responsible way.” Therefore, moving onward with the contract, Microsoft will help employees who do not want to work on specific projects to switch to another part of the business.
In 2018, the Pentagon released a proposal for a 10-year, 10-billion-dollar project to create a unified IT system for the entire Department of Defense (DoD) called Project JEDI, or Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure. The DoD publicly described the project as a way to "employ emerging technologies to meet war-fighter needs and maintain the military’s technological advantage". However, at an industry day for JEDI, the DoD chief management officer clarified that "this program is truly about increasing the lethality of our department”. When the project was announced, Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services (AWS) were seen as front runners to secure the contract. In 2018, Microsoft’s president Brad Smith announced that Microsoft would bid on project JEDI, describing it as "an example of the kind of work we are committed to doing". Other high-profile JEDI bidders included Google, IBM, and Oracle.
On October 12, 2018, Microsoft employees drafted a letter in protest of Microsoft's JEDI bid. The letter stated that the project did not align with employee values, and that Microsoft employees decided to work for the company "in the hopes of empowering every person on the planet to achieve more, not with the intent of ending lives and enhancing lethality". The employees also emphasized the need for clear ethical guidelines when working on a project, contending that "if Microsoft is to be accountable for the products and services it makes, we need clear ethical guidelines and meaningful accountability governing how we determine which uses of our technology are acceptable”. In response to an anticipated stance by Microsoft, the employees argued that "for those who say that another company will simply pick up JEDI where Microsoft leaves it, we would ask workers at that company to do the same. A race to the bottom is not an ethical position".
In a blog post from October 26, 2018, Brad Smith defended Microsoft's decision, arguing that “we can’t expect these new developments to be addressed wisely if the people in the tech sector who know the most about technology withdraw from the conversation”. Smith makes it clear that he believes it is Microsoft's responsibility to be involved in defense projects, saying Microsoft will "advocate for policies and laws that will ensure that AI and other new technologies are used responsibly and ethically". Smith contends that "to withdraw from this market is to reduce our opportunity to engage in the public debate about how new technologies can best be used in a responsible way". Smith concluded his letter saying that Microsoft is not going to withdraw from the future, but is instead going to work to shape it.
On October 25, 2019, Microsoft was awarded the contract for Project JEDI. In an email to CNBC, a Microsoft spokesperson said of the award, "we are proud that we are an integral partner in DoD’s overall mission cloud strategy...to satisfy the urgent and critical needs of today’s warfighters”.
However, on November 22, 2019, Amazon sued to challenge the award, citing interference from President Trump. AWS lawyers stated that President Trump "used his power to 'screw Amazon' out of the JEDI Contract as part of his highly public personal vendetta against Mr. Bezos, Amazon and the Washington Post". On March 6, 2020 a judge granted AWS's motion and suspended all contract activities, and on March 24, Amazon rejected the DoD's revised plan for the award,.
Microsoft leadership has developed a strong case for their continued involvement in DoD projects, illustrated in the blog post "Technology and the US Military". In response to controversy surrounding HoloLens and Project JEDI, Smith contended that Microsoft has a duty to be an active participant in defense projects. Only then can the company shape the use of their technology to encourage safe and ethical behavior. According to Microsoft executives, to withdraw from these contracts would mean that the company loses the ability to advocate for how technology is used in the military. This argument provides a foundation for Microsoft to continue lucrative deals with the DoD, and allows the company to legitimize their interests in defense contracting. However, this stance does not reflect the values of the entire company which raises the question of who makes up a company. Is it the executives or is it the employees, and when values conflict, whose should triumph? In the case of Microsoft and their involvement in defense projects, the executives have control, and the company actions reflect their interests above those of the employees.
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