Weekend Roundup: Biden’s Big Broadband Plan; Military HoloLens

It’s the weekend! Before you shut down your browser, let’s revisit some of the big tech stories that you might have missed this week, including Biden’s super-ambitious broadband plan, as well as Microsoft’s new contract to potentially change the future of war.

Microsoft’s Military AR Plans Continue

It’s the kind of contract that executives dream about: The U.S. Army will pay Microsoft as much as $21.9 billion over 10 years to develop augmented reality (AR) systems based on the tech giant’s HoloLens 2 device. In a statement to CNN, the Army stated that the devices would help the military “fight, rehearse, and train using a single platform.” This new agreement is the next iteration in Microsoft’s longtime collaboration with the U.S. Army on AR technology. 

In a corporate blog posting, Microsoft said that the “IVAS headset,” based on HoloLens and backed by Azure cloud services, “delivers enhanced situational awareness, enabling information sharing and decision-making in a variety of scenarios.”

Back in 2018, Microsoft signed a $480 million contract with the U.S. military to supply AR technology, with the goal of eventually providing some 100,000 AR headsets to troops. That sparked internal protest by Microsoft employees. “We demand that Microsoft… cease developing any and all weapons technologies, and draft a public facing acceptable use policy clarifying this commitment,” they wrote in an open letter to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and President Brad Smith. “As employees and shareholders we do not want to become war profiteers.”

Brad Smith retorted that Microsoft believes 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.”

That’s just one example of the constant tension between companies that want lucrative military contracts and employees who don’t necessarily want to build systems for killing or arresting people. Google employees have protested the search engine giant’s contracts to develop machine vision technology for the Pentagon’s drone programs, and Amazon employees asked their leadership to stop selling real-time face-recognition technology to law enforcement agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

Such protests, however, clearly haven’t dissuaded Microsoft from continuing its relationship with the U.S. Army. It could be quite some time, however, before soldiers are actually wearing the HoloLens in the field. 

Biden Wants Big Broadband 

President Biden wants to spend trillions of dollars to update the nation’s key infrastructure, including its broadband networks. Specifically, his American Jobs Plan includes a proposal to spend $100 billion on expanding broadband to as many Americans as possible. 

“The President’s plan prioritizes building ‘future proof’ broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas so that we finally reach 100 percent high-speed broadband coverage,” reads the fact sheet issued by the White House. “It also prioritizes support for broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and co-operatives—providers with less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities.” 

If everything goes according to plan, the initiative will also spark “price transparency and competition among internet providers” and reduce the cost of broadband service: “While the President recognizes that individual subsidies to cover internet costs may be needed in the short term, he believes continually providing subsidies to cover the cost of overpriced internet service is not the right long-term solution for consumers or taxpayers.”

Details of the plan are still vague, but it’s clear that Biden wants to go big on broadband—which can only benefit everyone in the long run. 

Duplex Gains Ground

When it made its debut a few years ago, Google’s Duplex service sounded like something straight out of science fiction: With the power of A.I., the platform could phone up a restaurant and make a reservation. Duplex sparked a number of questions, including whether an A.I. is truly smart enough to handle all the potential complexities of interacting with a human (especially a harried restaurant worker over the phone). There was also the ethical question of how Duplex would use all the data gathered from its phone calls.

Those concerns aside, something about the platform must be successful, because Google has now expanded Duplex to 49 states, according to The Verge. It’s a good reminder that, even if the news isn’t focused on a particular app, tech companies are still hard at work evolving their A.I. capabilities and reach.

That’s it! Have a great weekend, everyone!