Amazon’s, Microsoft’s Leaders Defend Ethics of Pursuing Defense Contract


As Microsoft and Amazon anxiously await a decision from the US Department of Defense on the $10 billion JEDI cloud contract, they are also on the hot seat to justify to their employees the sale of technology that could be used for lethal ends.

Both companies have defended their efforts to secure the lucrative single-award contract for the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) project that would, in part, set up cloud services for the military.

The enhanced service would facilitate more agile data access and analysis in strategic decision-making, such as the deployment of a drone in a particular area. The project has been controversial among high-tech companies: Executives defend their interest while confronted by significant resistance from employees voicing concerns about the military use of artificial intelligence and other technologies.

DOD Claims Patriotic Defense

Amazon’s Chief Executive Officer, Jeff Bezos, has taken a particularly ‘patriotic’ approach to justifying Amazon’s move to become a major subcontractor to the defense industry, arguing that providing state-of-the-art technology for military purposes is critical to the interests of the country and its citizens.

“One of the jobs of the senior leadership team is to make the right decision even when it’s unpopular,” Bezos saidOpens a new window last month. “If big tech companies are going to turn their back on the US Department of Defense, this country is going to be in trouble. I like this country.”

The Defense Department has said the contract will be awarded in late 2018 and echoed the patriotic appeal, defending high-tech companies that choose to work with it.

“I think what you’ll see is there will be those who will partner with us and will help us do the things that we need to do to be successful,” said Lt. Colonel Garry FloydOpens a new window , deputy chief of the Algorithmic Warfare Cross Functional Team. “Because success revolves around accomplishing the mission rapidly so we can all come home safe and so that we keep collateral damage to a minimum.”

Amid Employee Criticism, Microsoft Stays the Course

Microsoft president Brad Smith has defended his company’s decisionOpens a new window to pursue the contract, arguing that winning it would place Microsoft in a key position to shape responsible policy.

“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,” said Smith in a blog post in late October. “In a similar way, we’ll engage not only actively but proactively across the US government to advocate for policies and laws that will ensure that artificial intelligence and other new technologies are used responsibly and ethically.”

Microsoft employees have also taken to the public podium to address their concerns about the JEDI project, asking Microsoft leaders to withdraw.

“The contract is massive in scope and shrouded in secrecy, which makes it nearly impossible to know what we as workers would be building” wrote Microsoft employeesOpens a new window in an anonymous blog post. “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.”

Microsoft employees also argue that the company is prioritizing its own profits over principles in the development of artificial intelligence it is allegedly committed to, and are calling for participation in the contract to be reviewed by an internal ethics committee.

Ethical Concerns Around JEDI Persist

Similar pressure from employees led Google to announce in early October that it was ceasing plans to pursue the JEDI contract because of ethical concerns about how the technology would be used.

“We couldn’t be assured that it would be aligned with our AI principles,” said Google executive director Aileen Black.

IBM and Oracle have indicated that they intend to continue competing for the contract, but protested its structure as a single-vendor contract.

Google has also established official guidelines on its approach to artificial intelligence after several thousand of its own employees protested an earlier Defense Department contract, Project Maven. That contract focused on artificial intelligence and the optimization of full-motion video surveillance, and employees expressed concerned about the ethics of allowing computer technology to make decisions about action in war zones.

Amazon employees have not publicly asked the company to withdraw from the JEDI project, but have also expressed broader concerns about other work with government officials, including supporting US immigration officials through the provision of cloud services.