Last year, Microsoft won a $674-million-plus contract with the U.S. Army to build Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) prototypes that a government document described as intended to “accelerate lethal defensive and offensive capabilities utilising innovative components.”
This weekend, CNBC got a look at what Microsoft has been cooking up in the form of a modified HoloLens 2, and—though it seems like they got more of a high-end demo than a look at anything refined yet — it seems like the military is getting what they wanted and what Microsoft employees who signed a letter in February 2019 protesting the project feared.
CNBC wasn’t allowed to take video or photographs of the system, which is still in its preliminary stages, but CNBC technology product editor Todd Haselton was able to take them for a spin. He wrote the IVAS, in its current state, projects the kind of birds-eye local area map overlaid with locations of IVAS-equipped friendlies that a Call of Duty player would immediately recognise on the lower part of the screen:
When I first put it on, I saw a map in front of me that showed exactly where I was. It gave me a birds-eye view of the building I was standing in and also showed a nearby building. It’s like any satellite image you can find online.
But as I turned my head, a small arrow icon representing my location also turned. I could also see several other dots representing my other “squad members” who were also wearing the headsets.
(The military doesn’t appear to be able to do this on the fly yet, as one of the soldiers quoted in the piece told CNBC, “We might not know what [the battlefield] looks like, but we can predict and take Google images and implement that into the IVAS.”) On the top half is a compass overlay that lets a user immediately determine their bearing.
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IVAS also has a built-in FLIR thermal imaging system that Haselton wrote was designed to produce a superior picture than prior generations of night vision devices as well as subdue the green glow associated with them, which is sometimes a giveaway to enemy troops. Perhaps most indicative of the system’s lethal intent, IVAS has some form of aim-enhancement technology built right in. CNBC wrote:
You might also wonder, as I did, how a soldier can aim a weapon while wearing IVAS. Cleverly, the system shows the reticle, or the aim from the weapon, right through the visor.
Other uses of the technology include allowing commanders to receive images directly from a subordinate’s IVAS. The system is currently being tested in training exercises (such as kill houses) and is said to be able to display “after-action” reports containing metrics on soldiers’ performance. Again, Call of Duty players might recognise this sounds similar to an end-mission screen.
“The engineers and scientists are side by side,” Command Sergeant Major Michael A. Crosby told CNBC. “So if there’s a gap that needs to be adjusted, they take it back to the lab, and back in soldier command until we get it right.”
The Army told CNBC that it hopes to have “thousands and thousands of soldiers across the force” using the system as soon as 2022, and have it in widespread deployment by 2028 — but the U.S. military is notorious for pouring countless billions into prototype programs that never get fielded, including a Future Combat Systems project intended to integrate troops and vehicles with suites of sensors that would provide continual feedback during battle.
It’s not clear how much IVAS would cost on a per-unit basis or how flexibly the system could operate in real-time on battlefields that might end up looking quite different on the ground than from a satellite dish. (For example, it’s not like every building troops go into will have readily available, digitised blueprints).
There’s then the issue of whether equipping troops with complex digital assistants could hinder them if they are compromised by the enemy.
In other words, it’s a lot easier to set up flashy demos than build a product that makes it through the military’s lengthy procurement process.
Microsoft employees protesting the IVAS contract also argued that the company had “crossed the line into weapons development” and that “Intent to harm is not an acceptable use of our technology.”
Speaking with CNBC, Under Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy argued that enemies who know the military has this kind of capability “will not want to engage us” (a line of logic that hasn’t necessarily panned out with massive U.S. military superiority in recent conflicts). McCarthy added that IVAS would allow for U.S. troops to operate with more precision, avoiding harming civilians caught in the field of battle:
McCarthy also explained a bit more about how the military uses the word “lethality,” which was a point of objection in the letter.
“We use the word ‘lethality,’ but if you look at this system, it improves situational awareness so you can be better at target discrimination,” the under secretary said. That means soldiers can use IVAS to make sure they’re only killing the enemy, not civilians.
Again, this is an argument that sounds nice on paper. But critics have often alleged, for example, that the surgical strike is largely a myth propagated by the military to justify operations with a high risk of collateral damage (i.e., dead civilians).
In any case, the argument that IVAS will make soldiers more efficient at killing the right people is not likely to persuade anyone who believes that there is an inherent problem with using technology they worked on to increase the efficiency of killing.
Microsoft is moving forward with IVAS at a time when the relationship between big Silicon Valley firms and the military has become a major point of contention. Its bid for a major cloud computing project code-named JEDI came under similar employee protest, which Google had abandoned alongside its drone-imaging Project Maven after similar outcry from rank-and-file staff.
Numerous other major tech firms are also working with the Pentagon on a variety of projects.