Earlier this month, posters went up around Sydney advertising an event called “In the Ops Room, with Palmer Luckey”.
Rather than an album launch or stand-up performance, this turned out to be a free speech given last week by the chief executive of a high-tech US defense company called Anduril.
The company has established an Australian branch and Luckey is in town to to tempt “brilliant technologists in military engineering” to sign up.
Anduril makes a software system called schedulean “autonomous sensemaking and command and control platform” with a strong surveillance focus used on the US-Mexico border. The company also produces flying drones and has a deal to produce three robot submarines for Australia, with possibilities for surveillance, reconnaissance and warfare.
The PR splash is unusual in the normally secretive world of military technology. But Luckey’s speech opened a window into the future as seen by a company “Transforming US and Allied Military Capabilities with Advanced Technology”.
From Oculus to Anduril
Unlike most defense tech moguls, Luckey got his start in the world of immersive technology and gaming.
When he was in college, the founder of Anduril a short period at a military-affiliated mixed reality research lab at the University of Southern California, then founded his own virtual reality headset company called Oculus VR. In 2014, at the age of 21, Luckey sold Oculus to Facebook for $2 billion.
In 2017, Luckey was fired by Facebook for reasons that were never made public. According to some reportsit was about Luckey’s support for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Luckey’s next move, with support from right-wing venture capitalist Peter Thiel’s Founder’s Fund, was to Anduril . Setting up.
Finding new markets
Since Luckey’s departure, Facebook (now known as Meta) has expanded its efforts beyond the virtual and augmented reality market. an upcoming “mixed reality” headset plays a key role in his plans for a metaverse that will be offered to business, industry and consumers alike.
We see similar hinges from consumers to enterprises in the immersive technology industry. Magic Leap, makers of a much-hyped mixed-reality headset, later imploded and resurfaced focus on healthcare.
Microsoft’s mixed-reality headset, the HoloLens, was initially shown on international film festivals. However, the HoloLens 2, released in 2019, was marketed solely to businesses.
Then, in 2021, Microsoft won a 10-year, $22 billion contract to provide the U.S. military with: 120,000 head-mounted displays. Also called “Integrated Visual Augmentation Systems”, these headsets incorporate a range of technologies such as thermal sensors, a heads-up display and machine learning for training situations.
Speaking to the public in Sydney on Thursday, Luckey presented his own shift to defense not as an economic necessity, but as a personal fulfillment. He described saying that “your job is worthless” to new recruits in social media companies that make games or augmented reality filters.
That kind of work is nice, but ultimately meaningless, he says, while working for Anduril would be “professionally satisfying, spiritually satisfying, fiscally satisfying.”
Not all tech workers agree that defense contracts are spiritually satisfying. In 2018, Google employees rioted against Project Maven, an AI effort for the Pentagon. Staff at Microsoft and Unit have also expressed their dismay at the military involvement.
‘Billions of robots’
The first public question on Thursday asked Luckey about the risks of autonomous AI — weapons controlled by software that can make its own decisions.
Luckey said he was concerned about the potential of autonomy to do “really spooky things”, but much more concerned about “very bad people using very simple AI”. He suggested there was no moral ground for refusing to work on autonomous weapons, because the alternative was for “less principled people” to work on it.
Luckey did say that Anduril will always have a “human in the loop”:[The software] does not make life or death decisions without a person directly responsible for them.”
This may be current policy, but it seems inconsistent with Luckey’s vision of the future of war. Earlier in the evening he painted a picture:
You will see much larger numbers of systems [in conflicts] … you can’t have, say, billions of robots all working together, if they all have to be individually controlled directly by a person it’s just not going to work, so autonomy will be critical for that.
Not everyone is as optimistic about the autonomous arms race as Luckey. Thousands of scientists have committed not to develop lethal autonomous weapons.
Australian AI expert Toby Walsh, among others, has made the case that “the best time to ban such weapons is before they are available”.
Choose your future
Mine own research has explored the potential of immersive media technologies to help us envision paths to a future we want to live in.
Luckey seems to claim he wants the same thing: a use for these incredible technologies beyond augmented reality cat filters and “crappy” games. Unfortunately, his vision of that future lies in the zero-sum framework of an arms race, with surveillance and AI weapons at its core (and perhaps even “billions of robots working together”).
During Luckey’s speech, he said Anduril Australia is working on projects other than the robotic submarines, but he couldn’t tell what these were.