The year 2018 was really remarkable for Augmented Reality. Technology took off from its childhood and come to adolescence. With giant, sometimes really magic leaps forward, breathtaking hardware releases and of course some crises which are necessary for adolescence.
And the most prominent newsmaker in AR at this period was Microsoft. Firstly with its $480M US military contract for the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS), then with its workers’ demands company to drop this contract out and then with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella respond.
While we waiting for the US Department of Defence (DoD) another announcement about the choice between Microsoft and Amazon for it’s $10B cloud program JEDI, I’d like to head back a bit to better understand the discussion behind IVAS.
A couple of words about IVAS itself, considering that despite the secrecy there are already some results of the development and experience of the first tests. IVAS is a headset system based on Microsoft Hololens, that will provide a few key features for soldiers to help them navigate (including night vision), recognize and track squad members and targets, improve communication and data exchange, push to the next level analysis of combat situation and as consequence — generally increase combat effectiveness of each soldier and squad overall.
So what could go wrong?
As you’ve probably heard, Microsoft employees were alarmed “that Microsoft is working to provide weapons technology to the U.S. Military, helping one country’s government “increase lethality” using tools we built”.
So they pushing the pretty simple idea that they don’t want to be part of a project that’ll increase the number of people’s deaths. This position in some sense similar to Andrei Sakharov’s anti-nuclear dissidence after he had become concerned about the moral and political implications of his researches on a thermonuclear device. And Microsoft developers truly understand the power of AR in the hands of US military.
But is it so simple? Does the use of AR headset by military turn it into a weapon? And is it all about increasing lethality?
A huge part of IVAS program is about testing and training. And here we come to the idea that the more soldiers are practicing and the more they’re effective — the less it causes actual loss, especially civilian loss.
With more intelligent assistance by technology, soldiers will have more information to make a decision, with continues practice using AR they’ll naturally have a lot more time to react. Cost of mistake is very high at the battlefield or during a counter-terrorist operation, so a better-trained soldier means fewer mistakes and fewer tragic accidents. A more effective army means less actual combat situations, tracking data of each soldier means much more control and responsibility.
As a citizen of Ukraine — the country that’s been assaulted by a more powerful military force, I understand how important could be any technical solution to defend ourselves. Lately, Ukrainian startup LimpidArmor has developed a military modification of the Microsoft Hololens that allows tank crews to effectively perform combat missions. Camera modules outside the vehicle provide in real time a 360-degree view, target recognition, data visualization, telemetry. For Ukraine, such development has only one moral side — increase the chance to stop the aggressor.
So there’s another point in IVAS discussion: yes it’s military program and yes it’s about increasing the effectiveness of soldiers but it’s not about designing more weapons to bring more violence into this world. The key idea behind modern armies is containment, nor aggression.
“All of us who live in this country depend on its strong defense,” wrote Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. “The people who serve in our military work for an institution with a vital role and critical history. We made a principled decision that we’re not going to withhold technology from institutions that we have elected in democracies to protect the freedoms we enjoy”.
As CEO of a tech company, I understand that in the contemporary world you need to take sides. And the more advanced technologies you have, the more responsibility you need to take in order to manage it.
So IVAS contract goes on. And DoD shared its first impressions and optimistic statements. This particular case looks already solved but the discussion is not closed yet. Emerging technologies such as Augmented and Virtual Reality, Machine Learning and Computer Vision will be a part of global warfare in a matter of years. And the development of a new moral code is now no less important than development technologies itself.
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