Virtual reality (VR) – a technological development that we would be more likely to associate with the gaming or entertainment industry than warfare. Yet as VR seems set to become a part of our future, it has already begun to, and seems set to increasingly play a huge role in warfare. Though this may appear positive at first glance, it raises questions over implications for designers at technology companies, far removed from warfare, that their work is now involuntarily involved in this line of work. This article will explore the dilemma between its use in the military and the issues it raises with relation to the designers.
Protecting the designer
It is crucial to acknowledge the beliefs and views of employees at digital companies with little say in the morally questionable applications of their products.
In February, Microsoft workers demanded the cancellation of the company’s $480 million contract with the US military, as employees did not want to become “war profiteers”. Is it morally correct to put employees in a dilemma where they must choose between their employment and ethical principles?
Kantian theory stresses that the action itself – not the outcome – is what defines good will. It would therefore go against this principle to force scientists and engineers at Microsoft to abandon their own moral code, regardless of if the outcome benefited the company as a whole. Kant would argue that to force any employees to work on such projects, against their beliefs, would be to use them as a means to a selfish end.
We must not forget lessons from history, such as the V-2 programme of Nazi Germany, which left engineers and scientists – ethically opposed to their work – helpless to act upon it. Whilst this example may seem far removed from modern corporations, it serves as a poignant reminder as to what can happen in extreme cases.
Furthermore, while employees are normally able to refer back to a company code of conduct, guiding them in their decision making and reassuring them the company is committed to ethical practice. The novelty of VR being applied to warfare means that the codes of conduct are unprepared for this line of work, unable to give employees confidence that their designs will not cause harm. Should we therefore not require the consent of the designer?
Public Enemy No.1
It is essential to consider the implications on the public when commercial technology crosses with lethal warfare. Unregulated access to AR technology is a slippery slope. The open source nature of much of today’s technology means it’s not hard to contemplate a situation in which civilians can access military style training. In the wrong hands, this then increases the expertise and complexity of violent crime.
Countries such as the US, where the public will soon have access to affordable VR technology, are already suffering from high levels of violent crime. Gun crime, in particular, was responsible for 26,819 serious injuries in 2015 alone . In the wrong hands, access to such technology could decrease public safety and police power in preventing crime, at worst directly for increased fatalities.
From a Utilitarianism Approach, we can provide the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people by preventing the use of AR technology in warfare. The benefit to the US military would be seen as less important than the safety of the US, and to a greater extent global, public.
A military advantage
From a Utilitarian perspective, it could be argued that the consequences of the sale of Hololens technology to the military will benefit more people than those it will disadvantage; Microsoft will benefit economically and the military will benefit as a result of improved quality of military training. Headset technology may soon be considered necessary equipment for protecting our armed forces, improving ‘mobility and situational awareness’. This could include fewer deaths of military personnel and of the public because the military are also involved in anti-terrorism and other public operations.
Additionally, approximately 100 workers out of Microsoft’s total workforce signed the letter; this is a small percentage of the total workforce. Since 100 workers cannot be considered a majority, the sale could be considered an ethical action by a utilitarian.
Kant would argue that it is the motive behind the sale of the technology that defines whether it is moral, rather than the resultant consequences. Therefore, there is a certain level of ambiguity of the morality of the sale, as we do not definitively know the overriding motives behind it. The motive could be maximising profit or the protection of human life through improved quality of training.
Can we really resist technological advances?
It is inevitable that the military will use VR technology in the near future, regardless of the supplier. In this case, Microsoft could be seen as the ‘lesser of two evils’ if they offer a more morally justified solution to their competitors. This scenario is comparable to the recent cloning of British and US military drone technology by Chinese companies for supply in the Middle East. The replica drones were distributed to countries which the US had refused to sell to for ethical reasons, meaning the negative consequences were the same regardless of the moral motives of the US Congress.
The other argument is that, even if you do not necessarily agree with the use of augmented reality for warfare, military research and development has often led to accelerated and unexpected advances in other industries. For example, it is widely accepted that the development of the modern antibiotics stems from the development of Penicillin into an effective drug during World War II. Had it not been for the atrocities of the war, the development of antibacterial drugs may never have been realised as quickly. The theory of consequentialism would support this view – arguing that initial act of developing VR for warfare is forgiven in favour of the positive consequences.
The group is for the sale of VR technology to the military.