Most Unity employees do not have immediate access to every detail about a project the company is working on. Employees can request that information from a manager in some cases, but it's rarely easy. Part of the problem, sources told us, was that not all Unity employees knew exactly what Unity was doing for the military, and if the projects that they were working on could end up supporting Unity's work for the military without them realizing."Most Unity AI work empowers other government projects, so in this way it can be difficult to gauge one's contribution to government projects," said one source.According to one source, a Unity engineer could be working on an AI tool without a specific application in mind and have no way of knowing if another part of the company would then use that tool for a contract with the military."It didn't seem very clear through company training or anything like that there even were concerns, really, in what we were doing," the source said. "It should be very clear when people are stepping into the military initiative part of Unity," said one source.
"Whether or not I'm working directly for the government team, I'm empowering the products they're selling. Do you want to use your tools to catch bad guys? Maybe we shouldn't be in the business of defining who bad guys are."
A key principle, according to Unity, is that its work for the government "does not directly involve the loss of life, harm of the planet, or a person's right to equity and inclusion." Citing confidentiality clauses, the company could not point to specifics, but brought up its internal Sales Ethics Advisory Council (SEAC) "made up of interested Unity employees from diverse backgrounds, geographics, and parts of the company." Unity said the SEAC has passed along recommendations that have resulted in declining contracts "that do not align with the principles outlined above.""We believe in the freedom of expression, and as the Unity engine is a tool, a tool that can be downloaded and used by most anyone, it’s impossible to truly police or censor all uses of it," Unity said.After Waypoint reached out for comment, Unity CEO John Riccitiello released a similar statement internally to employees over a company-wide Slack on Thursday, a copy of which was shared with Waypoint.
Unity's work with the government isn't a secret—there's a giant promotion for this collaboration on Unity's website—but its existence has created tension, thanks to the increasingly contentious merging of the military and AI."This has been largely received poorly internally for those that know about it," said one source.Waypoint uncovered three government contracts with Unity in 2020 alone, including a $428,000 contract in June 2020 with the U.S. Air Force for a "modeling & simulation prototype" that would function as a "multi-domain operations advanced battle management family of systems." The Air Force signed a new $220,583 contract with Unity with the same description in October 2020, as well. The third contract for $23,500 was for a Unity Pro subscription for the U.S Army. The online records also showed the Navy paying for Unity licenses in the past, including in 2012 for $4,800.
"I don’t think most employees were warned that they would need philosophy degrees before accepting a position at Unity.”
An internal presentation titled "Unity AI for government" breaks up the company's strategy in this space into three stages: Crawl (adoption), Walk (recurring revenue), and Run (self service). In the first "adoption" phase, the presentation says Unity aims to enable developers by "hiring thought leaders and subject matter experts," building a "cadre of govt and systems integrator evangelists," and raising awareness by promoting "purpose-built demos" and educating "the government community."
All three sources told Waypoint the current debates at Unity about government contracts can be traced back to the company's decision to partner with the oil and gas company Schlumberger in 2019. The Guardian once described Schlumberber as "the oil world's most secretive operator" and "the biggest company you've never heard of." The company operates all over the world and was fined $155 million in 2015 for violating sanctions in both Iran and Sudan.
Riccitiello’s Slack message anticipating this article provoked an enormous response from Unity's more than 4,000 employees, most of whom do not participate in or around Unity's government work. One employee told Waypoint there are more than 100 responses to Riccitiello’s message, a discussion still ongoing, with hundreds more responding with emojis. "The reactions are mixed," said the same source. "The largest group is angry to be finding out we're working with the military at all. There's a group that is confused or upset, but is withholding full judgement until they read the article. There's a group repeating some version of the 'slippery slope' argument over and over, and then there's a small contingent of men (mostly executives and upper management) who think we should all just Support 'Our' Troops and anything short of actually dropping the bombs ourselves is totally fine."The response was enough to prompt a follow-up by Riccitiello, promising to open Unity's next town hall meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, to start with a discussion about the topic."I would not want Unity to do anything that violates our principles," said Riccitiello. "This is super-important to me. I realize that each of us would have their own individual take on where to draw the line on what works and doesn’t."Riccitiello praised the company's internal watchdog council, SEAC, though underscored it functions in an advisory role—it does not accept or reject deals on Unity's behalf. He noted SEAC is "relatively new" and Unity doesn't "have well practiced and enforced policies." "Some of what we’re reading is 100% accurate," he said. "Some not. Some a perspective based on partial information. I don’t see Slack as a good place to deal with these issues."Riccitiello promised "full transparency" in Tuesday's town hall meeting.Unity's full response to this story is below:
Additional reporting by Joseph Cox.
As we said in our S-1 filing when Unity went public, we grew out of the core belief that our real-time 3D (RT3D) tools have applications outside of gaming. Unity’s RT3D platform solves the toughest engineering and data challenges our customers can face in their respective industries. We know this because the use of Unity’s real-time 3D platform is implemented in just about every production or manufacturing lifecycle in almost all industries in operation today - including the U.S. government and military.
The use of Unity and real-time 3D in the government and aerospace industry as well as the U.S. military is not new to Unity, or its stakeholders. We’ve provided simulation and training, AI and machine learning, synthetic environment rendering and more to these customers for some time. We’ve had a relationship with The Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference (I/ITSEC) for over a decade and we have active contracts with the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army, and defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
Confidentiality clauses for these engagements are very restrictive - similar to many of our partnership deals including some of the work we do with gaming companies and in verticals such as retail - so while we can’t share specific details, we can say that we have a thorough review process, and we have not nor will we support programs where we knowingly violate our principles or values.
We’re proud of our relationships and we’ve always been upfront about our work, most of which involves the adoption of RT3D technologies to improve workflows in manufacturing, training/simulation and design visualization.
Unity was founded with a strong belief that the world is a better place with more creators in it. We believe in the freedom of expression, and as the Unity engine is a tool, a tool that can be downloaded and used by most anyone, it’s impossible to truly police or censor all uses of it.
Next, when we partner or are actively working with an organization or company - whether it’s the US military or frankly, any of our customers - we ask ourselves if the specific engagement violates one of our key principles: that it does not directly involve the loss of life, harm of the planet, or a person’s right to equity and inclusion. We don’t invest our time and energy with customers to undermine these principles.
We are also a company committed to human rights and social justice and these principles underscore our Unity Social Impact work - - where we invest $ and time to engender a more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable society through the potential of real-time 3D. We strongly believe in and support these causes.
Following a series of company-wide roundtables with hundreds of Unity employees a couple of years ago, Unity created the Sales Ethics Advisory Council (“SEAC”). The SEAC is made up of interested Unity employees from diverse backgrounds, geographies and parts of the company to help evaluate upcoming business opportunities that present potential risks or may be controversial and it remains active today. Based on the SEAC’s recommendation, we have declined deals that do not align with the principles outlined above.
As a company that has grown to over 4.6k employees, we recognize that people have differing views about doing business with military organizations. Above all, we remain committed to our core values and recognize that dialogue about opinions and lived experiences are central to making Unity a strong company. Some Unity employees serve in militaries, or have family or friends currently serving, and we employ veterans who have completed their service. We continue to respect their service and sacrifice and commend them for acting selflessly in support of their countries and their values.
This is all to say that our creators and employees play a critical role by advising management and we’ll continue to work with them as Unity grows and our technology evolves. We will always respect a different point of view and want to encourage a public discourse of how the application of real-time 3D can be used in the most thoughtful manner. Unity believes in supporting its creators and employees, regardless of industry or point of view, and ensuring we work together in positively shaping the world’s future.