As tech companies such as Google wrestle with employee objections to working with the U.S. military, Microsoft Corp.’s president is throwing his company’s support behind the Pentagon.
Microsoft is “going to provide the U.S. military with access to the best technology … all the technology we create. Full stop,” Brad Smith said Saturday during a panel at the Reagan National Defense Forum at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.
Smith acknowledged that “there is some angst” in some workforces, including Microsoft’s, about tech companies’ involvement in military contracts.
In June, after thousands of employees voiced objections to a contract that allowed the military to use Google’s artificial intelligence tools to analyze drone footage, Google decided not to renew the contract.
Smith said he wanted to quell such concerns. “We want Silicon Valley to know just how ethical and honorable a tradition the military has,” he said.
The future and use of artificial intelligence and autonomous systems have broad implications, he said, and are “of importance to everybody and not just young people who happen to live on the West Coast.”
Smith expressed openness to hearing his workers’ opinions, saying that Microsoft would “engage to address the ethical issues that new technology is creating.”
He recalled an email he had received from an employee who grew up in Belgrade, Serbia — which was bombed by NATO forces in 1999 — that said the employee needed to think through Microsoft’s reasoning for working with military contracts. Smith said he understood the employee’s background would lead to such hesitation.
But he did not mention Microsoft taking any action or changing any policy as a result.
Other tech industry executives pushed back against the idea that Silicon Valley workers are less inclined to work with the Defense Department solely because of cultural differences or qualms about the moral implications.
“It’s much more an economics issue,” said Rachel Olney, founder and chief executive of geographic location data start-up Geosite. “Dealing with the U.S. government is extremely time consuming” and often doesn’t provide the same kind of profits as commercial work, she said.
The Defense Department has established the Defense Innovation Unit, which is intended to provide capital — without taking an ownership stake — to companies that want to work on prototype projects that help address problems faced by the U.S. military.
Despite the pushback from employees at Google on the Project Maven artificial intelligence contract, Defense Innovation Unit director Michael Brown said his agency has gotten more responses from commercial companies that are interested in working with the U.S. military.
Separately at Saturday’s event, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told reporters that development of the new B-21 bomber is on schedule. She acknowledged that it was still early in the program, but “we are pleased with how that program is going forward.”
The Air Force’s next-generation stealth bomber is being built by prime contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. at its plant in Palmdale.
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