Microsoft Corp will continue to sell software to the US military despite concern from some of its employees about the ethical implications of providing cloud and artificial intelligence tools that could potentially fuel violent global conflict.
“We readily decided this summer to pursue these projects, given our longstanding support for the Defense Department,” wrote Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith, in a blog post Friday that he said conveyed a discussion he had with Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella and employees at a meeting the previous day. “All of us who live in this country depend on its strong defense. The people who serve in our military work for an institution with a vital role and critical history. Of course, no institution is perfect or has an unblemished track record, and this has been true of the US military.”
Earlier this month a blog post appeared on the publishing platform Medium on the day bids were due for a massive US military cloud contract. The anonymous writers, who said they were Microsoft employees, urged the company not to bid. Earlier in the year, hundreds of Microsoft workers signed a petition against a contract with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement that Microsoft had originally said included some AI software. “We want the people of this country and especially the people who serve this country to know that we at Microsoft have their back. They will have access to the best technology that we create,” Smith wrote. “At the same time, we appreciate that technology is creating new ethical and policy issues that the country needs to address in a thoughtful and wise manner. That’s why it’s important that we engage as a company in the public dialogue on these issues.”
Microsoft also said that the company is working with the US government on policy and ethical issues raised by these new technologies, including engaging with the parts of the government that oversee the military.
“In the United States, the military is controlled by civilian authorities, including the executive branch, the Congress and the courts. No tech company has been more active than Microsoft in addressing the public policy and legal issues raised by new technology, especially government surveillance and cyber weapons,” he wrote. “In a similar way, we’ll engage not only actively but proactively across the US government to advocate for policies and laws that will ensure that AI and other new technologies are used responsibly and ethically. Already, we’re talking with experts to help inform us and address these issues.”
Smith noted that not all Microsoft employees share the company’s views, and that’s fine. Microsoft also respects “the fact that some employees work in or may be citizens of other countries, and they may not want to work on certain projects,” he said. “As is always the case, if our employees want to work on a different project or team – for whatever reason – we want them to know we support talent mobility.”
His comments come as Microsoft and other technology companies including Alphabet Inc’s Google and Amazon.com Inc, grapple with how to balance lucrative government, police and military contracts with the ethical boundaries of science. Recent deals that have drawn employee protests include cloud and AI deals that would bolster military capabilities, surveillance technology, immigration restrictions and tracking suspected criminals. Some workers argue they don’t want company software used for warfare or policing they feel is biased against minorities.
Earlier this month Google decided not to compete for the Pentagon’s cloud-computing contract, valued at as much as $10 billion, saying the project may conflict with its corporate values. The project, known as the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure cloud, or JEDI, involves transitioning massive amounts of Defense Department data to a commercially operated cloud system. Amazon is considered the front-runner for the deal, but Microsoft also has a shot.
In June, Google opted not to renew its Pentagon drone contract after extensive protests from employees. More than 4,000 signed a letter asking the company to cancel the contract and said that Google and its AI technology should not be in the business of war. At least a dozen staff resigned over the issue. Google subsequently released a set of principles designed to evaluate what kind of artificial intelligence projects it would pursue.
Days after Google’s move Amazon Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos struck a different note, saying his company “will continue to support” the US Defense Department. “If US tech companies turn their backs on the Department of Defense, this country is in trouble,” Bezos said at the Wired 25 Summit in San Francisco. “This is a great country and it does need to be defended.”Amazon executives have also recently met with officials from ICE to pitch the company’s facial recognition technology. An Amazon employee, also using the site Medium, said a letter addressed to Bezos and other executives that was signed by more than 450 employees, asked the company to stop selling the technology to police departments. The letter also demanded that Amazon kick Palantir Technologies Inc., the software firm that reportedly powers much of ICE’s deportation and tracking program, off Amazon Web Services and to institute employee oversight for ethical decisions.