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Google and the Pentagon: Thousands of Googlers Stand Against Project Maven

“This contract puts Google’s reputation at risk and stands in direct opposition to our core values.”
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Image Courtesy: Jake Anderson

More than 3,000 Google employees, including dozens of senior engineers, have signed a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai protesting the company’s work with the Pentagon that could help with drone strikes. The letter, obtained by The New York Times reads, “We believe that Google should not be in the business of war.”

Google is implementing Project Maven, a customized Artificial Intelligence (AI) surveillance engine that uses “Wide Area Motion Imagery” data captured by US Government drones to detect vehicles and other objects, track their motions, and provide results to the Department of Defense.

Recently, Googlers voiced concerns about Maven, internally. Diane Greene, the head of Google’s cloud operation who sits on Alphabet’s board of directors, said the technology will not be used to “operate or fly drones” and “will not be used to launch weapons.” But this is not enough for the many employees who signed the letter addressed to Pichai. “While this eliminates a narrow set of direct applications,” the letter reads, “the technology is being built for the military, and once it’s delivered it could easily be used to assist in these tasks.”

Work on Project Maven began last April, and while details on what Google is actually providing to the US Department of Defense (DOD) are not clear, it is understood that it’s a Pentagon research initiative for improved analysis of drone footage. In a press statement, a Google spokesperson confirmed that the company was giving the DOD access to its open-source TensorFlow software, used in machine learning applications that are capable of understanding the contents of photos.

 The letter goes on to ask that Google stop its involvement in Project Maven and that the company create and enforce a policy stating that it will not engage in building warfare technology. “This contract puts Google’s reputation at risk and stands in direct opposition to our core values,” the letter states. “Building this technology to assist the US government in military surveillance — and potentially lethal outcomes — is not acceptable.”

That kind of idealistic stance, while not shared by all Google employees, comes naturally to a company whose motto is “Don’t be evil,” a phrase invoked in the protest letter. But it is distinctly foreign to Washington’s massive defense industry and to the Pentagon, where the defense secretary, Jim Mattis, has often said a central goal is to increase the “lethality” of the United States military.

From its early days, Google has encouraged employees to speak out on issues involving the company. It provides internal message boards and social networks where workers challenge management and one another about the company’s products and policies.

Uneasiness about military contracts among a small fraction of Google’s more than 70,000 employees may not pose a major obstacle to the company’s growth. But in the rarefied area of artificial intelligence research, Google is engaged in intense competition with other tech companies for the most talented people, so recruiters could be hampered if some candidates are put off by Google’s defense connections.

Amid growing fears of biased and weaponised AI, Google is already struggling to keep the public’s trust. By entering into this contract, Google will join the ranks of companies like Palantir, Raytheon, and General Dynamics. The argument that other firms, like Microsoft and Amazon, are also participating doesn’t make this any less risky for Google. Google’s unique history, its motto ‘Don’t Be Evil’, and its direct reach into the lives of billions of users set it apart.

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