In late 2018, Microsoft struck a $480 million deal with the U.S. Army to deliver augmented reality headset prototypes based on its HoloLens system. Well, it appears the military is a fan because it’s inked a contract to get a whole lot more of them. As in, over 120,000 headsets worth up to $21.88 billion over 10 years.
“This award transitions IVAS to production and rapid fielding to deliver next-generation night vision and situational awareness capabilities to the Close Combat Force (CCF) at the speed of relevance,” the Army wrote in its press release. The contract itself, according to CNBC, has a five-year base period with the option to extend for another five years after.
The Integrated Visual Augmented System (IVAS) headsets are based on the HoloLens 2—Microsoft’s $3,500 mixed reality headset—and utilize the company’s Azure cloud computing services. While incredibly advanced, the HoloLens 2 is currently more popular with enterprise than consumers because, well, most people don’t have a use for a $3,500 headset with no killer apps. The military, however, is a different story. Per CNBC, the IVAS prototype allows soldiers to see a map and a compass, and has thermal imaging for night vision capabilities. It’s also capable of helping soldiers aim a weapon. The Army’s press release reiterated those use cases, saying that it also allows soldiers to “Fight, Rehearse, and Train” on a single platform. Microsoft’s press release implies that this tech may keep soldiers (and perhaps civilians) safer by “enabling information sharing and decision-making” in various scenarios.
That sounds nice on paper, but the news is also unsettling. The technological effectiveness of targeted bombings or surgical strikes to minimize civilian casualties, for instance, is far from proven. These days, most of the news around AR headsets tends to focus on how they might enhance everyday life. Tech giants pitch AR as a tool that could help you navigate streets, learn more about your surroundings, and make your working life more productive. This Microsoft deal, however, is a firm reminder that this tech not only had its origins in warfare, but it’s also being actively developed for that purpose as well. While the IVAS headsets themselves may not directly be classified as weapons of war, it is a tool that can be used to make soldiers more “effective.”
The relationship between technological development and war isn’t new. Plenty of tech we use today—including, most famously, the internet—was originally developed for military purposes. That doesn’t mean, however, that the civilian engineers developing this tech are pleased with how porous that line can be.
Back when Microsoft first won the 2018 IVAS contract, Microsoft employees wrote an open letter to CEO Satya Nadella and President Brad Smith demanding that the company end the contract. In it, they called for stricter ethical guidelines for how this emerging tech should be used and said that they “refuse to create technology for warfare and oppression.” Those feelings don’t appear to have changed.
“We would much rather Microsoft used today to stand up for Transgender people everywhere on Transgender Day of Visibility, instead of building weapons of war,” Microsoft employees tweeted in response to the news.
“For two centuries, technology has been changing the nature of what is needed to defend a nation,” Smith wrote on Twitter. “We are longtime supporters of the @DeptofDefense and @USArmy’s efforts to modernize the U.S. Military through advanced technology.”
Still, so long as military contracts remain lucrative, this likely won’t be an issue that goes away any time soon. Especially not for Microsoft employees. After all, Microsoft also won a $10 billion cloud computing contract for the Pentagon in 2019.
Right now, it’s a question of how ethical it is for Big Tech to engage in military or policing contracts without explicitly disclosing that purpose to its employees. Microsoft employees are not the only ones to object to these types of contracts. Google employees, for instance, petitioned the company to kill its involvement with the Pentagon’s controversial Project Maven drone AI program, as well as its Project Dragonfly program to censor search engine results in China. Amazon workers also demanded that the company retract its facial recognition contracts with law enforcement, as well as kick Palantir, a data-mining firm with military connections, off its cloud servers.