Microsoft Workers Protest Army Contract With Tech 'Designed To Help People Kill'

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Microsoft's HoloLens, a mixed reality smartglass, is seen at Montapacking in Molenaarsgraaf, on April 18, 2017. This is the difference with virtual reality, where reality disappears completely. "We did not sign up to develop weapons, and we demand a say in how our work is used".

Microsoft workers are calling on the giant tech company to cancel its almost $480 million U.S. Army contract, saying the deal has "crossed the line" into weapons development by Microsoft for the first time.

A group of Microsoft workers is demanding the company cancel a contract supplying the U.S. Army with HoloLens headsets that they say would turn real-world battlefields into a video game.

The letter, titled "HoloLens For Good, Not War", begins with the statement that "we refuse to create technology for warfare and oppression".

A letter sent around Microsoft on Friday and seen by the BBC has been backed by employees across multiple departments. But Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, has said the company will not cease working with the Defense Department, a business relationship that he said dates back decades. The company added it will continue to address "important ethical and public policy issues relating to (artificial intelligence) and the military".

"The contract's stated objective is to 'rapidly develop, test, and manufacture a single platform that Soldiers can use to Fight, Rehearse, and Train that provides increased lethality, mobility, and situational awareness necessary to achieve overmatch against our current and future adversaries, ' " the letter said.

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The military said it wanted a heads-up display system that could supercharge soldiers' capabilities: giving them heat detection, night vision, and the ability to view video and navigation; automatically recognizing and targeting "relevant threats"; and allowing them to stealthily see where their weapons were aiming, without using a laser that could give their location away. "To that end, we believe that Microsoft must stop in its activities to empower the U.S. Army's ability to cause harm and violence".

The internal unrest over the Army contract follows a year of activism by tech workers who have become increasingly emboldened to voice their concerns about how their products are applied. Microsoft workers are protesting the use of the augmented reality technology in a U.S. Amy contract. Google, for example, opted a year ago against renewing one of its contracts with the Pentagon - a partnership to develop image-recognition tools for drones - because employees felt that the tech giant shouldn't be in the "business of war", they said at the time.

Microsoft under Nadella has sought to distinguish itself as an ethically minded corporation that takes care to use its technological advances in ways that benefit society.

In June 2018, more than 100 Microsoft employees signed a petition protesting their employer's contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Microsoft is expected unveil updates to HoloLens, its headset for businesses and governments, during an event at the Mobile World Congress industry conference in Barcelona on Sunday.

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