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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella responds to Army HoloLens contract backlash

HoloLens 2 with phone
HoloLens 2 with phone (Image credit: Windows Central)

In a new interview with CNN Business, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella defended the company's $480 million contract with the U.S. Army following employee backlash. The contract, which would supply the Army HoloLens devices for training and combat purposes, was the subject of an open letter last week, reportedly signed by at least 50 Microsoft employees, calling for the company to kill the contract over ethical concerns.

The contract in question is part of a program through which the U.S. Army is seeking to increase the "lethality by enhancing the ability to detect, decide and engage before the enemy" using augmented reality, and it could ultimately lead to the purchase of around 100,000 HoloLens devices.

In the interview with CNN Business, Nadella emphasized that Microsoft is committed to having a "continuous" dialogue with employees about their concerns, but the contract was penned as part of a "principled decision" to not withold technologies from institutions that "protect the freedoms we enjoy." From Nadella:

First of all, we welcome dialogue with our employees on a continuous basis. When this first came up, we had the dialogue and we deliberated and 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. We were very transparent about that decision and we'll continue to have that dialogue.

Nadella went on to say that Microsoft is "clear-eyed" about the responsibility it bears concerning the unintended consequences of the technology it develops, citing the the work it has done with privacy and cybersecurity.

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The letter penned by Microsoft employees called attention to the ethical concerns of using technology developed by the company for lethal purposes. ""The application of HoloLens within the [Integrated Visual Augmentation System] is designed to help people kill," the letter stated. "It will be deployed on the battlefield, and works by turning warfare into a simulated 'video game,' further distancing soldiers from the grim stakes of war and the reality of bloodshed."

It's unclear how many employees have signed onto the letter thus far. For now, however, Microsoft seems clearly committed to going through with the contract. (Update: The Microsoft employees behind the letter say that, as of February 25, more than 250 employees have endorsed the letter.)

Nadella's comments came just a day after Microsoft announced the HoloLens 2, the long-awaited follow-up to the original headset.

Dan Thorp-Lancaster is the Editor in Chief for Windows Central. He began working with Windows Central as a news writer in 2014 and is obsessed with tech of all sorts. You can follow Dan on Twitter @DthorpL and Instagram @heyitsdtl. Got a hot tip? Send it to daniel.thorp-lancaster@futurenet.com.

26 Comments
  • Say what you want, but that was a very clear statement that makes sense. At the end of the day, MS is a business and their technology can be used for the greater good (insert your perspective). Technology is only a tool. If it can benefit us in any way, even if that benefit comes in the form of a soldier that could potentially avoid a dangerous situation, while engaging the enemy. Some people act as if the potential of war does not happen on a regular basis. If people truly understood the close calls where wars have been averted, they wouldn't be so opposed to the developer, or in this case, use of technology that can help minimize the lives lost in wartime. It's not matter of if we go to war or respond to a hostile situation, it's when. Everyone doesn't play nice and it would be a great thing to have technology that would give our soldiers any edge over the enemy.
  • I'll start by saying I agree with everything you said, but honestly, your comment can be summed up with just one thing you said. "At the end of the day, MS is a business" That's all that's needed. They make a product, they want to sell said product. Good for them if they can sell 100,000 in one go.
  • I understand what you are saying, but the blanket statement is irresponsible. Of course it matters who they sell things to. If Microsoft sold 100,000 holo-lenses to various gangs, or African warlords it would be immoral. Although I agree with Nadella on this issue, his employees have a right to voice their opinions, and likely find jobs elsewhere, depriving the company of their talent.
  • I don't think Nadella said they couldn't have opinions Edit: reread your comment, realized I misunderstood what you said.
  • How would that be immoral? If someone wants to buy 100,000 computers they can buy 100,000 computers. Is Microsoft immoral for selling Windows to 100,000 hackers? It would be different if Microsoft was creating weapons, or developing military software for the hololense. They aren't, they are selling a computer that fits on your head.
  • Good for him. Don't agree with Nadella on a lot of things, but I agree with him here, and am glad to see him pushing back against a whiny (and seemingly tiny) group of entitled employees who very much have the option of just seeking employment elsewhere. Meanwhile, Google has the inmates running the asylum.
  • One of the few things I will agree with Nadella on. And, it's a $480mil contract. A contract that will help pay these whining snowflakes' salaries.
  • 28 year retired Air Force Lt Col, B-52 Bombardier, son pilots AC-130 gunships, for employees who don't like this go put your butt on the line and see how fast you'll support this.
  • Yes... thank you. (And thanks for your service)
  • While I hate everything to do with war, the unfortunate reality is that human beings have been fighting and killing each other for various reasons for thousands of years. As a nation, the United States owes it to all its citizens to be in as powerfully a defensive position as possible. Of course you can't defend yourself without having technology that will incapacitate or kill those that want to do you harm. I understand the Microsoft employees are taking conscientious objector status to the use of MS technology in the military, but ultimately if an aggressor finds a point of weakness they are going to exploit it. Rolling over and exposing your soft underbelly in an act of passiveness will only encourage others to take advantage of you. Depending on dictators like Putin, Kim, Assad, etc. to act in a rational manner is crazy. They are going to do whatever they think they can get away with as shown by the multitude of their own citizenry they have killed in their consolidation of power. I'm proud of Mr. Nadella's response. Supporting the democratically elected government of the U.S. in building an effective military to protect itself is a good thing. I don't want to see anyone harmed, but if the inevitable choice is presented I would like to ensure that those that intend the U.S. harm will be repelled expeditiously and with as little loss of life as possible.
  • "It's unclear how many employees have signed onto the letter thus far." :) No it's not, if you checked back with a source of the open letter, they updated it to at least "250+ employees"
    https://twitter.com/MsWorkers4/status/1100251311575044098 ( And 2 days ago, it was "150+ signatures" https://twitter.com/MsWorkers4/status/1099699080756744193)
  • It may not be the popular way of thinking about this, but the more tech the military has to precisely take out "the bad guys" the less likely they are to kill innocent bystanders either by mistake or through negligence. When I was in grad school, we were partially funded by the ONR (Office of Naval Research) on using VR to train soldiers, and I thought a lot about the ethics of it. Helping soldiers to get mentally prepared for the stressful and chaotic environment of a battlefield before they are deployed reduces the chances for mistakes. Yes, not the exact same scenario as the Hololens usage, but I think the same principle applies. If conflict happens, I'd rather have soldiers who are professional and equipped with the best technology so that they can do their jobs in a way that reduces the amount of collateral damage.
  • See, this is only an issue if Microsoft then refused to sell the technology to the other side of the war, then it's no longer about business.
  • you go sell technology to North Korea and see how far you get.
  • There shouldn't be an issue, business is business, if you can sell to one market you should be able to sell to another, that's what Capitalism and the Free Market is all about. I am well aware this is not how things are, but I'm pointing out the hypocrisy in that.
  • There are good points to be made on the side against MS's working with the military. The people signing the open letter are not whiny snowflakes and suggesting so is obnoxious. You do not magically become a sage by agreeing with the military, and its critics aren't automatically immature hippies. It's not hard to see who really needs some growing up.
  • I agree with your comment!
  • Once again Nadella shows his detachment from today's morality, at least outside the USA. The USA has been dominated since Eisenhower, by the military industrial complex and Nadella falls beautifully into that category. Whatever would the USA do without a conflict? Make one to justify such absurd usage and contracts? You bet! Nadella and the MS board need to take a long hard, clear eyed look at themselves and not just the balance sheet.
  • I agree with you that the US has benefitted in ways from conflict, especially WWII. I think the point is that it's not just a black and white issue, there are good points on both sides of this argument.
  • Wtf... Every country 8n the world should be ready to defend themselves this is not a US stand it's a logical stand... A world without conflict is a utopia... Especially in the coming centuries... With booming demographics world wide, global warming. You'll have climatic migration in the futur, resource domination that will result in violent conflict... Thinking we evolved above and beyond armed conflict is ludicrous... There will be blood... And I'm not American, I'm French so when it comes to snowflake cliché I know my snowflakes.... Thinking that there is no use to arm race in our day and age is just retarded... You guys need to check what is going on in the world and how it will implose sooner or later...
  • Awesome decision Microsoft. We, the families of service men and woman, thank you for your support.
  • "...further distancing soldiers from the grim stakes of war and the reality of bloodshed." Wow, just wow, as a combat veteran, you never forget. Nothing will EVER 'further distance' you from the grim realities. No magic hololens will fix that.
  • they didn't say what they want it for. maybe its for training simulation.
  • Ive said it else where. If you dont like your job Quit. If your job is being asked of you and thats your job within reason to what your job usually is. Do it. If not quit and find a new job you want to do!
  • If it's for the safety and betterment of your country (and the worry is when and how this tech will go commercial in the coming years) there should be no doubt on why this deal is being done.
  • Why did my comment get deleted?!