Earlier this month, posters began advertising an event around Sydney with “Palmer Lucky in the Ops Room”. Rather than an album launch or a stand-up gig, it turned out to be a free speech given last week by the CEO of a high-tech US defense company called Andrill.
The company has set up an Australian arm, and Luckey is in town to entice them to sign up for “fantastic technologies in military engineering”.
Anduril developed Lattice, a software system with a strong surveillance focus for use on the US-Mexico border. The company, which manufactures flying drones, has also agreed to build three robotic submarines for Australia, which have surveillance, reconnaissance and warfare capabilities.
The PR splash is unusual from the normally secretive world of military technology. But Luckey’s speech opened a window into the future, as seen by the company, “transforming US and UN military capabilities with advanced technology.”
From Oculus to Anduril
Unlike most defense tech moguls, Lucky started out in the fascinating world of technology and gaming.
While in college, the Anduril founder had a brief stint at a military-affiliated mixed reality research lab at the University of Southern California, then founded his own virtual reality headset company, Oculus VR. In the year In 2014, at the age of 21, Lucky sold Oculus to Facebook for $2 billion.
In the year In 2017, Lucky was fired by Facebook for reasons that were never made public. According to some reports, the issue is Luckey’s support for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Luckey’s next step was to set up Andrill with the backing of right-wing capitalist Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund.
Finding new markets
Since the release of Lucky, Facebook (now called Meta) has expanded its efforts beyond the virtual and augmented reality market. The upcoming “mixed reality” headset will play a key role in his plans to shape it for business and industry as well as consumers.
We can see similar pivots from consumer to enterprise in the immersive technology industry. Magic Leap, makers of much hyped mixed-reality headsets, has since branched out and re-emerged with a focus on healthcare.
Read more: ‘Vulnerable’: Microsoft to make $22 billion augmented reality headset for US military
Microsoft’s mixed-reality headset HoloLens was first shown at international film festivals. However, the HoloLens 2, released in 2019, was only sold to businesses.
Then in 2021, Microsoft won a ten-year, $22 billion contract to supply 120,000 head-mounted displays to the US military. Known as “integrated visual augmentation systems,” these headsets include technologies such as thermal sensors, head-mounted display and machine learning for training scenarios.
Completing a job?
Speaking to a Sydney audience on Thursday, Luckey framed the defense’s own transformation as a personal fulfillment rather than an economic imperative. “Your work is worthless,” he said to social media companies making games or augmented reality filters.
While such work is fun and ultimately pointless, he says, working for Anduril will be “professionally fulfilling, spiritually fulfilling, financially fulfilling.”
Not all technologists agree that defense contracts are a spiritual culmination. In the year In 2018, Google employees revolted against Project Maven, the Pentagon’s AI effort. Microsoft and Unity employees expressed concern over military involvement.
“Billions of Robots.”
The first audience question on Thursday asked Lukin about autonomous AI — software-controlled weapons that can make decisions on their own.
Luckey says he’s concerned about the potential for autonomy to do “really nasty things,” but he’s more concerned about “very bad people using very basic AI.” The alternative is that there is no moral ground for refusing to work on autonomous weapons because “unscrupulous people” are working on them.
As Luckey says, Andril will always have a “human son”.[The software] He makes no life or death decisions without someone directly responsible for that.
This may be current policy, but it seems to conflict with Luke’s vision of future warfare. He drew a picture earlier in the evening:
You will see very large numbers of systems [in conflicts] … You can’t have billions of robots all together, if they all have to be controlled individually by one person, it’s not going to work, so autonomy is going to be critical to that.
Read more: UN fails to agree on ‘killer robot’ ban as it pours billions into autonomous weapons research
Not everyone is as sane as Lucky about the autonomous arms race. Thousands of scientists have pledged not to develop lethal weapons.
Australian AI expert Toby Walsh and others make the case that “the best time to ban such weapons is before they are available.”
Choose your future
My own research explores the potential of immersive media technologies to help us imagine ways into the future we want to live in.
Luckey seems to argue that he wants the same: a use for these incredible technologies beyond cat filters and “worthless” games. Unfortunately, his vision of that future is based on a zero-sum arms race, with espionage and AI weapons at the forefront (and possibly “billions of robots working together”).
During Luckey’s speech, Andreal mentioned that Australia was working on other projects besides robot sales, but he could not share what those were.
Read more: Australia’s pursuit of ‘killer robots’ could put trans-Tasman alliance with New Zealand on shaky ground