Technology and the US military

 |   Brad Smith - President

American soldier with a laptop

Over the last few months there has been a debate in our industry about when and how technology companies should work with the government, and specifically whether companies should supply digital technology to the military, including here in the United States. Yesterday, Satya Nadella and I addressed this issue in a conversation with our employees at the company’s monthly Q&A session. Given public interest in this question, we want to be transparent both internally and externally on where Microsoft stands on these issues.

As we explained at our Q&A session, our work as a company in this space is based on three straightforward convictions.

First, we believe in the strong defense of the United States and we want the people who defend it to have access to the nation’s best technology, including from Microsoft.

Second, we appreciate the important new ethical and policy issues that artificial intelligence is creating for weapons and warfare. We want to use our knowledge and voice as a corporate citizen to address these in a responsible way through the country’s civic and democratic processes.

Third, we understand that some of our employees may have different views. We don’t ask or expect everyone who works at Microsoft to support every position the company takes. We also respect the fact that some employees work in, or may be citizens of, other countries, and they may not want to work on certain projects. As is always the case, if our employees want to work on a different project or team – for whatever reason – we want them to know we support talent mobility. Given our size and product diversity, we often have open jobs across the company and we want people to look for the work they want to do, including with help from Microsoft’s HR team.

Because these are complex issues, we want to provide our employees (and the public) additional context and some of our thinking in more detail.

To begin, we’ve worked with the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) on a longstanding and reliable basis for four decades. You’ll find Microsoft technology throughout the American military, helping power its front office, field operations, bases, ships, aircraft and training facilities. We are proud of this relationship, as we are of the many military veterans we employ.

Recently Microsoft bid on an important defense project. It’s the DOD’s Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure cloud project – or “JEDI” – which will re-engineer the Defense Department’s end-to-end IT infrastructure, from the Pentagon to field-level support of the country’s servicemen and women. The contract has not been awarded but it’s an example of the kind of work we are committed to doing.

We readily decided this summer to pursue this project, given our longstanding support for the Defense Department. 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. Of course, no institution is perfect or has an unblemished track record, and this has been true of the U.S. military. But one thing is clear. Millions of Americans have served and fought in important and just wars, including helping to free African-Americans who were enslaved until the Civil War and liberate nations that had been subjected to tyranny across Western Europe in World War II. Today the citizens in our military risk their lives not only as the country’s first line of defense, but often as the nation’s first line of assistance around the world in hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and other disasters.

We want the people of this country and especially the people who serve this country to know that we at Microsoft have their backs. They will have access to the best technology that we create.

At the same time, we appreciate that technology is creating new ethical and policy issues that the country needs to address in a thoughtful and wise manner. That’s why it’s important that we engage as a company in the public dialogue on these issues.

Artificial intelligence, augmented reality and other technologies are raising new and profoundly important issues, including 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. But 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.

We also believe it’s important for people across the tech sector to recognize that ethical issues are not new to the military. Deliberations about just wars literally date back millennia, including to Cicero and ancient Rome. New technologies have created important ethical and policy issues for the United States since the middle of the 1800s. The U.S. military has dealt with issues that have included chemical weapons, biological weapons, nuclear weapons and most recently cyber weapons. Public policies and laws that govern the use of weapons technology repeatedly have proven to be vital not just for this country, but for the world.

In the United States, the military is controlled by civilian authorities, including the executive branch, the Congress and the courts. No tech company has been more active than Microsoft in addressing the public policy and legal issues raised by new technology, especially government surveillance and cyber weapons. In a similar way, we’ll engage not only actively but proactively across the U.S. government to advocate for policies and laws that will ensure that AI and other new technologies are used responsibly and ethically. Already, we’re talking with experts to help inform us and address these issues.

As a company, Microsoft was founded and is headquartered in the United States, and we’ve prospered throughout our 43 years from the many benefits that this country offers. We also recognize that we have a global mission, global customers and a global responsibility. We’ll need to work through these issues in other countries, and we’ll work to do so in an appropriate and thoughtful manner.

But when it comes to the U.S. military, as a company, Microsoft will be engaged.

We believe that the debate about the role of the tech sector and the military in this country has sometimes missed two fundamental points. First, we believe that the people who defend our country need and deserve our support. And second, to withdraw from this market is to reduce our opportunity to engage in the public debate about how new technologies can best be used in a responsible way. We are not going to withdraw from the future. In the most positive way possible, we are going to work to help shape it.

Tags: , ,