It’s happened. Augmented Reality technology could hardly stay under the Defense Department’s radar. According a filing with the General Services Administration, Microsoft has agreed to a whopping $480 million deal that would see the company supplying U.S. Army with HoloLens AR headset. And that is not for intelligence or training alone, but also for combat purposes. The news has raised a series of ethical questions regarding potential future uses of AR.
There is little doubt in the potential utility of Augmented Reality for Army combat missions. The consumer-facing tech community has somehow decided not to focus too heavy on it. But the U.S. Department of Defense did. Microsoft, being one of the few out there who has delivered a product (still waiting for the others to join) has beaten Magic Leap in the bid to apply the Army with high-tech tools for weaponry. Probably an easy one for Microsoft, as the company focus regarding HoloLens AR headset has always been inking towards the enterprise market. In a pristinely militaristic phrase, HoloLens will ‘increase lethality by enhancing the ability to detect, decide, and engage before the enemy’.
It is further reported that as many as 100,000 HoloLens Headsets could end up at Army disposal. In the next two years, however, 2,500 Army HoloLens should suffice. Steering clear of explaining HoloLens purchase in terms of adding to the arsenal, a spokesperson from Microsoft writes: ‘Augmented Reality will provide troops with more and better information to make decisions’. The words would have us think that no guns are involved, but we should surely know better. The deal involves a prototype AR headset that’s based on HoloLens, but probably catered more towards military use. We imagine more sensors (thermal, night), and overall alertness to be added to the off-the-shelf HoloLens.
The U.S. Army deal raises a few ethical questions for Microsoft. They revolve around whether big tech companies should supply military efforts with more intricate weaponry. Google, for instance, suffered a backlash amidst its own ranks for the involvement in the Project Maven that may or may not be in line with the company ethics regarding AI. Not without consequences too, as Google decided against bidding for the huge JEDI contract due to staff disagreement.
Microsoft, however, experienced a similar issue but went on with a bid. As for the US Army HoloLens deal, the truth of the matter is that the Microsoft headset hasn’t been selling all that well, and that the Army contract will hopefully fix that. Microsoft’s Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith said:
‘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’
Rather than Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality seems the right choice for military usage. Whereas VR means total immersion and is perfect for training routines, AR is the way to go in the current technological climate. Hence the US Army HoloLens deal. But the question of should rather than can is another matter. For the time being, it looks like that the consensus among big companies is one of correlation – if they can, they certainly should.