Microsoft President On U.S. Military Contracts: ‘Microsoft Will Be Engaged’


Microsoft will continue to pursue contracts supplying advanced digital technology, including artificial intelligence, to the U.S. military, despite the anonymous protest of some of its employees.

In response to those employees troubled by Microsoft's pursuit of the Department of Defense's JEDI cloud computing contract, Microsoft President Brad Smith argued Friday the company has a duty to supply those who serve in the military with the best technology—then engage in the conversation over its ethical use in war.

Smith, also Microsoft's chief legal officer, said he and CEO Satya Nadella talked over the issue with employees at Microsoft's monthly Q&A session Thursday to let them know where the company stands.

The answer was clear: "when it comes to the U.S. military, as a company, Microsoft will be engaged," Smith wrote in a blog post.

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[Related: Microsoft Upgrades Services To Meet Federal Compliance Standard Ahead Of JEDI Bid]

Smith acknowledged the "profoundly important issues" raised in the debate, such as "the ability of weapons to act autonomously."

"As we have discussed these issues with governments, we’ve appreciated that no military in the world wants to wake up to discover that machines have started a war," he said.

But to avoid such a disastrous scenario, technology leaders must have a seat at the table.

"We can’t expect these new developments to be addressed wisely if the people in the tech sector who know the most about technology withdraw from the conversation."

Almost two weeks ago, anonymous Microsoft employees posted on Medium, a social journalism platform, an article that concluded: "Microsoft, don’t bid on JEDI."

They cited a statement from Julia White, corporate vice president for Azure, that made clear the industry's second largest cloud provider was aggressively pursuing the $10 billion contract that has been a magnet of controversy.

Microsoft later confirmed to CRN it had submitted its proposal to the government for JEDI.

"The contract is massive in scope and shrouded in secrecy, which makes it nearly impossible to know what we as workers would be building," the employees protesting that decision said.

They referenced Department of Defense Chief Management Officer John H. Gibson II telling attendees of an industry event: "We need to be very clear. This program is truly about increasing the lethality of our department."

"Many Microsoft employees don’t believe that what we build should be used for waging war," the letter said.

Microsoft should adhere to its own recent publication, The Future Computed, that laid out ethical guidelines for building artificial intelligence, the letter stated. The JEDI program, in accordance with that document, should be subject to a review from a special ethics committee within Microsoft, they said.

Instead, "with JEDI, Microsoft executives are on track to betray these principles in exchange for short-term profits."

The Microsoft employees advocated an approach similar to that of Google — the third-largest cloud provider pulled out of JEDI contestation last week saying it wasn't sure the technology delivered for JEDI "would align with our AI principles."

Google dropping out slightly cleared the field in a controversial process that has seen Oracle and IBM lodge protests arguing requirements look engineered to deliver the award to Amazon Web Services.

The Microsoft employees asked their colleagues from other cloud providers to consider taking a similar stance at their respective companies.

"Like those who took action at Google, Salesforce, and Amazon, we ask all employees of tech companies to ask how your work will be used, where it will be applied, and act according to your principles," the letter said.

When they took jobs at Microsoft, they never expected their work to have "the intent of ending lives and enhancing lethality," they said.

But Smith said the company "readily decided this summer to pursue this project, given our longstanding support for the Defense Department."

Americans, and especially those who serve in the military, should know "that we at Microsoft have their backs."

"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."

Smith’s comment come not long after Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told an audience at the Wired25 conference in San Francisco that “if big tech companies are going to turn their back on the U.S. Department of Defense, this country is going to be in trouble.”