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.

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

Dan Thorp-Lancaster is the former Editor-in-Chief of Windows Central. He began working with Windows Central, Android Central, and iMore as a news writer in 2014 and is obsessed with tech of all sorts. You can follow Dan on Twitter @DthorpL and Instagram @heyitsdtl