Should tech companies share their technology with militaries?
Last year, Microsoft won an extremely lucrative $480 million contract to supply the US military with their HoloLens augmented reality headsets.
The headsets, which are worn like goggles, basically give the wearer a “heads up” computer display, allowing the user to interact with a computer while on the move.
Although the HoloLens systems will initially be used for training purposes by the military, the plan is to eventually use them in combat, providing soldiers with a heads-up display similar to those that fighter pilots have.
The headsets will not only provide vital health and other info to soldiers, but will also use artificial intelligence to navigate them through war zones and recognise targeted persons and combatants.
Microsoft’s employees are not too thrilled about this decision by the company to work with the military. They prepared a petition protesting against their work being used for military purposes, demanding that Microsoft cancel the deal.
The petition, which was published on Twitter, stated that “we did not sign up to develop weapons, and we demand a say in how our work is used”.
Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella defended the company’s decision in a CNN interview, stating that “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”.
This is part of a wider trend in the tech industry. Thousands of tech workers are voicing their unhappiness about their companies working with the government, and especially the military.
Last year, Google cancelled a contract to provide the US government with artificial intelligence software to enhance drone footage.
This came after 4 000 Google employees signed a letter of petition against the contract and sent it to Sundar Pichai, the company’s chief executive.
“We believe that Google should not be in the business of war,” stated the letter, whose signatures included some of Google’s top engineers. The petition further demanded that Google should announce a policy never to build warfare technology.
These protests also led to Google pulling out of a $10 billion bid for a Department of Defence cloud computing contract known as Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI.
Despite similar protests from their employees, this did not stop competing tech giants like Microsoft, IBM, Amazon and Oracle from continuing to bid for the contract.
Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos confirmed the company’s stance on military contracts in an interview late last year, saying: “If big tech companies are going to turn their back on the US Department of Defence, this country is going to be in trouble.”
Similarly, dozens of tech start-ups are also aiming to clinch lucrative military contracts via a new initiative launched by the US Air Force, called “Demo Day”, which is the air force’s way of trying to attract more cutting-edge innovations from the commercial sector.
At the first ever Demo Day, over 50 start-ups pitched their ideas, which ranged from artificial intelligence systems to cyber security, 3D mapping and medical tech.
When asked to comment about the possibility that their technologies would be used for war, they avoided the minefield by simply stating that they would be happy as long as their tech was used for good.
In reality, there is no way to know where their technology will be used, and neither are there any guarantees.
The military is, out of necessity, shrouded in layers of secrecy and is not obligated in any way to disclose what it is going to do with the technology. It would be an obvious national security risk if they did.
Then there is the definition of the word “good”, which is a massive grey area.
The understanding of what entails a “good” act will undoubtedly vary based on different perspectives, and what may be good for one person is not necessarily good for the next.
Of course, as much as the likes of Nadella and Bezos may play the patriotic card, no one can deny the fact that there are definitely capitalist motivations at play, because military contracts are highly lucrative.
Ultimately, the question around government and military contracts presents a major conundrum for tech companies of all sizes.
Should they yield to the sensitivities of their staff and customers, or should they do what they think is best for their businesses?
Either way, they face a public relations minefield that they will need to tread through with extreme caution.
But there is another dimension to this debate that most people overlook: that the military has played a key role in development of many of the technologies we take for granted today, and had it not been for the military, it is possible those technologies would not exist today.
I will discuss these technologies in the next article.
* Bilal Kathrada is an educational technologist, speaker, author, newspaper columnist and entrepreneur. He is the founder of CompuKids, a start-up that teaches children Computer Science skills. Bilal blogs at www.bilalkat.com.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.