Employees Protest Microsoft Bid For Huge Military Contract, Saying It Could Cause 'Human Suffering'

Microsoft’s French headquarters. (Photo: Raphael Satter, AP)

Last week, Google dropped its bid for the Joint Enterprise Defence Infrastructure (JEDI), a massive military cloud computing contract potentially worth up to $US10 ($14) billion, amid employee backlash and concern the project could violate their “AI principles.” Now an open letter claiming to be from an unspecified number of Microsoft employees is urging the Redmond, Washington-based tech giant to also back down from its own JEDI bid.

In the letter, which was published on blogging site Medium, the employees wrote that they joined Microsoft with “the expectation that the technologies we build will not cause harm or human suffering.” They also accused Microsoft executives of betraying the company’s artificial intelligence principles, which that state A.I. should be “fair, reliable and safe, private and secure, inclusive, transparent, and accountable”—in pursuit of “short-term profits.”

The post specifically calls out comments by Department of Defence Chief Management Officer John H. Gibson II that the JEDI program “is truly about increasing the lethality of our department,” as well as compares the situation to similar employee outcry over Microsoft’s cloud computing contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

From the Medium post:

We need to put JEDI in perspective. This is a secretive $US10 ($14) billion project with the ambition of building “a more lethal” military force overseen by the Trump Administration. The Google workers who protested these collaborations and forced the company to take action saw this. We do too.

So we ask, what are Microsoft’s A.I. Principles, especially regarding the violent application of powerful A.I. technology? How will workers, who build and maintain these services in the first place, know whether our work is being used to aid profiling, surveillance, or killing?

... Microsoft’s decision to pursue JEDI reiterates the need for clear ethical guidelines, accountability, transparency, and oversight.

Microsoft, don’t bid on JEDI.

As Fedscoop noted, the open letter was published “just hours after bids were due for the JEDI contract.”

Microsoft did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Gizmodo, though a spokesperson told the Daily Telegraph, “Microsoft submitted its bid on the JEDI contract on the October 12 deadline. While we don’t have a way to verify the authenticity of this letter, we always encourage employees to share their views with us.”

The JEDI contract is essentially an effort to bring the entire military under the envelope of a single cloud provider, which could improve everything from basic file transfer speeds to automated analysis of surveillance images and mass translation of intercepted documents. Since those capabilities could be used to support combat operations, employees at some companies have become concerned the JEDI winner would essentially become components of the U.S. war machine.

In addition to ethics concerns by employees at Silicon Valley giants vying for the contract, the process has become contentious because the winner-takes-all bidding process is supported by only one major power player: Amazon. While Google cited ethics concerns when pulling its bid, Google, Microsoft, International Business Machines Corp., and Oracle Corp. had all supported splitting the contract into smaller pieces.

Amazon is widely considered a front-runner for the contract and already has a $US600 ($843) million contract with the CIA, with rival companies complaining that using a single vendor for JEDI would essentially hand it a monopoly position in the defence market.

[Medium via the Telegraph / Fedscoop]

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