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We joined Microsoft to create a positive impact on people and society, with the expectation that the technologies we build will not cause harm or human suffering. Tuesday’s blog post serves as a public declaration of Microsoft’s 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 we as workers would be building. 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.”
Microsoft, don’t bid on JEDI.
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.
Recently, Google executives made clear that they will not use artificial intelligence “for weapons, illegal surveillance, and technologies that cause ‘overall harm.” This was only after thousands of Google workers spoke out in the name of ethics and human rights. On Tuesday, the company withdrew from the JEDI bidding war, since they “couldn’t be assured that it would align with [their] A.I. Principles,” principles they put in place in response to sustained employee pressure. With a large number of workers vocally opposed, executives were left with no choice but to pull out of the bid.
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.
Since the cloud and edge solutions listed on Azure’s blog fall under the category of cutting-edge intelligent technology, it should be subject to review by Microsoft’s A.I. ethics committee, Aether. Eric Horvitz (our Research Lab Director) has stated that Aether “has teeth.” But if Aether does not consider this kind of ethical dilemma, then what exactly is it for? With no transparency in these negotiations, and an opaque ethics body that arbitrates moral decisions, accepting this contract would make it impossible for the average Microsoft employee to know whether or not they are writing code that is intended to harm and surveil.
Hundreds of employees within Microsoft have voiced ethical concerns regarding the company’s ongoing contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), in which the company provides “mission-critical” Azure cloud computing services that have enabled ICE to enact violence and terror on families at the border and within the United States. Despite our objections, the contract remains in place. Microsoft’s decision to pursue JEDI reiterates the need for clear ethical guidelines, accountability, transparency, and oversight.
Microsoft, don’t bid on JEDI.