On Tuesday, Microsoft expressed its intent to bid on the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract — a contract that represents a $10 billion project to build cloud services for the Department of Defense. The contract is massive in scope and shrouded in secrecy, which makes it nearly impossible to know what technologies Microsoft would be building for the Department of Defense. At an industry day for JEDI, DoD Chief Management Officer John H. Gibson II explained the program’s impact, saying, “We need to be very clear. This program is truly about increasing the lethality of our department.” This has ruffled a few feathers inside the Redmond-based software giant. In an open letter published Saturday, an unspecified number of Microsoft employees stated their disapproval. They wrote:Many Microsoft employees don’t believe that what we build should be used for waging war. When we decided to work at Microsoft, we were doing so in the hopes of “empowering every person on the planet to achieve more,” not with the intent of ending lives and enhancing lethality. For those who say that another company will simply pick up JEDI where Microsoft leaves it, we would ask workers at that company to do the same. A race to the bottom is not an ethical position. 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.
We need to put JEDI in perspective. This is a secretive $10 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? Earlier this year Microsoft published “The Future Computed,” examining the applications and potential dangers of A.I. It argues that strong ethical principles are necessary for the development of A.I. that will benefit people, and defines six core principles: “fair, reliable and safe, private and secure, inclusive, transparent, and accountable.”
With JEDI, Microsoft executives are on track to betray these principles in exchange for short-term profits. If Microsoft is to be accountable for the products and services it makes, we need clear ethical guidelines and meaningful accountability governing how we determine which uses of our technology are acceptable, and which are off the table. Microsoft has already acknowledged the dangers of the tech it builds, even calling on the federal government to regulate A.I. technologies. But there is no law preventing the company from exercising its own internal scrutiny and standing by its own ethical compass.