More technology employees are rebelling against working on defense projects. But that's unlikely to change the tech revolution coming to future battlefields.
In one of his most famous speeches, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill warned that if the Allies failed in World War II, we would face “the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”
Consciously or not, “perverted science” is a concern of a small group of Microsoft employees who recently circulated a letter opposing the company’s $480 million contract to supply HoloLens headsets to the Army.
It’s the latest protest by tech employees uncomfortable with their companies’ closeness with the Pentagon — and this is a world in which the Allies won.
Amazon, Google and Salesforce, among others, also have seen the rise of employee questions or protests. Worker pressure caused Google to drop out of competition for a $10 billion cloud-computing contract and not renew an artificial-intelligence project with the Defense Department.
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The Microsoft headsets, which could vastly expand the capability of soldiers by feeding virtual information into their fields of vision, are “technology for warfare and oppression,” according to the letter signed by 50 Microsoft workers.
Don’t expect the company to agree, or to back away as Google did when facing a much larger internal backlash. Microsoft has been working with the Pentagon for most of its existence.
In October, Microsoft President Brad Smith wrote, “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.”
But he went on to acknowledge the complexity of the issue and the reluctance of some employees to work on defense projects. They have the option to work in other areas of the company, he said.
These are not new dilemmas or worries. Leading physicists and other scientists worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II. The goal: To build atomic bombs before Hitler could do the same. Whatever misgivings they had about opening the nuclear Pandora’s box were overcome by the possibility of a “Man in the High Castle” world built on Nazi nukes.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the effort, grew horrified over the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Meeting Harry Truman, he said, “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.”
Even Edward Teller, “Father of the Hydrogen Bomb” (which Oppenheimer opposed), told of how some Manhattan Protect scientists were “profoundly disturbed” by the outcome.
“After the war’s end,” Teller wrote, “scientists who wanted no more of weapons work began ﬂeeing to the sanctuary of university laboratories and classrooms.”
This did not stop a nuclear-arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, or the creation of what President Dwight Eisenhower disapprovingly called the military-industrial complex.
Leading technology companies — not just primary defense contractors — were always involved in building weapons and other “systems” (in defense patois) for the military. The internet and GPS grew out of Pentagon research.
Would the world have been better if the United States had forsworn nuclear weapons?
It’s impossible to prove a negative. But Stalin and his successors were determined to build them, no matter what we did. Nuclear blackmail might well have ensured a Communist Western Europe, maybe even America. The fall of Communism would not have been assured.
One could argue that the mutual assured destruction between the Soviet Union and the United States created the longest period of peace between major powers in modern history. A big asterisk is the risk of accidents and misunderstandings. And today’s nuclear landscape is trickier (e.g. North Korea). But I can’t condemn defense workers who helped keep us safe and free.
The gray areas come with how American power is applied. Bloody blunders from Vietnam to the invasion of Iraq are obvious examples of why tech workers wouldn’t want to be partners with the Pentagon. Facial-recognition technology could be used against innocent refugees — or American citizens.
Also, the size and political power of the military-industrial complex has grown beyond Ike’s worst fears in 1960. The United States will spend $717 billion on defense in fiscal 2019 (16 percent of the total budget). Add in assorted “homeland security” items and the tab is closer to $1 trillion. America spends more than the next seven biggest spenders combined.
People alive today often don’t realize that the military was viewed with ambivalence through much of American history. The framers didn’t want a large standing army, lest a tyrant use it to destroy our liberties. John Quincy Adams said in 1821 that America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” How quaint that sounds today.
What may be new is how future wars are fought, especially if they happen between major nations. The “battlespace” will include advanced-information technology, hypersonic missiles, stealth fighters, energy weapons and, yes, soldiers equipped with virtual reality goggles. All would be connected by tech to an unprecedented degree.
Of course, much of this may not work as advertised. Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — expected to cost $1.5 trillion over its lifetime — has been plagued with problems. Lockheed says these have been largely solved, but who knows? In war, the enemy gets a vote, as former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said.
We can take comfort that China stole data to make its F-35 copycat. Maybe they got the buggy version. But maybe Chinese tech workers — with no protest or a government that would allow it — got the bugs out.
Churchill spoke to a different world, in a global conflict facing an existential threat. Today, we are more suspicious of technology’s fruits and of our leaders. To many, the “return of great power competition” that is a constant refrain in military writing seems more like a hope for a big war than a call for deterrence. This is what makes the dissidents at Microsoft and elsewhere in Big Tech uncomfortable.
Their calls should be heeded. But the military-industrial complex will not easily be defeated, or even caused to hesitate.