Microsoft have secured a 10-year contract to provide the Pentagon with cloud based services
What will Microsoft be providing the US government with?
The JEDI contract (Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure) worth $10 billion, has been awarded by the Department of Defense. This includes the provision of a wide range of singular cloud based services, from storage facilities right up to developing AI technology and data processing.
Full details of the contract, which departments it will serve and what services are included have been published online in adherence with the regulations for transparency around public sector contract awards.
Which rivals did they beat to win the contract?
Amazon certainly won’t be happy. There has been longstanding friction between Amazon and the US government, with President Trump publicly tweeting his ‘concerns’. The President accused Amazon of not paying taxes, and ‘putting many thousands of retailers out of business’.
Microsoft and Amazon were the final front runners to secure the contract, with IBM and Oracle having been taken out of the running in April.
Given the size and broad scope of the contract, it perhaps isn’t surprising that such big players in the tech world were the only bidders with the capacity to realistically meet the specification of JEDI. However, there has been a storm of controversy throughout the bidding process.
I have stated my concerns with Amazon long before the Election. Unlike others, they pay little or no taxes to state & local governments, use our Postal System as their Delivery Boy (causing tremendous loss to the U.S.), and are putting many thousands of retailers out of business!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 29, 2018
Why the controversy?
Firstly, bidder Oracle brought a challenge over alleged conflicts of interest. They lost the challenge – and the contract – but the seed of doubt had been planted.
IBM were one of a number of complainants, and spoke to CNBC saying that they had ‘raised serious concerns about the structure of the JEDI procurement’.
It seems that the crux of the controversy is over the relationship between private bidders working with the US DoD, with reported conflicts of interest negating the fair and open nature of the public tendering process. IBM stated that they felt that a ‘multi-cloud strategy’ would be a more robust system and be better suited to the needs of the US forces.
President Trump even got involved, describing the volume of complaints as ‘tremendous’.
Is there a precedent for public sector contracts providing services to the DoD?
Defense Pricing & Contracting is responsible for overseeing their procurement processes. One factor which may have swayed the contract award in favor of Microsoft is the accusations that the DoD had ‘improperly structured the solicitation process in ways that favored AWS‘ (Amazon Web Services).
Whilst private companies can bid against tenders to provide public sector services, they must be able to demonstrate how they will meet the provision specification. Given the size of the JEDI contract, and the somewhat contentious reputations of the competing bidders, it isn’t surprising that questions continue to be asked about the parity of the awarding process.
Previous controversy cropped up when Google staff objected strongly to their participation in the Pentagon’s AI project named Project Maven. As a result, Google stepped down and pledged ‘not to develop AI weapons’, but hasn’t ruled out other contracts with the US military.
How serious is the US military about developing AI weapons?
There is a huge amount of concern around the world about how private tech companies with huge R&D capacities could be working to develop military applications. The use of AI weapons would cross a bridge that cannot be uncrossed. Using machines to make decisions about deployment of lethal weapons means voiding the human decision making process, and all the ethics and training involved to make impossibly hard decisions.
EWDN have explored the subject, and how private companies have a responsibility to stop this happening, rather than taking a passive stance.
Several leaders in the tech world have done just that, signing a pledge to never weaponize artificial intelligence. However, neither Amazon nor Microsoft were among them.