Sundar Pichai, the chief executive at Google, has received a letter signed by thousands of employees working at Google protesting the company’s vital role in a military research program which the US military could use to improve its drones in terms of their targeting systems.
Among the thousands of employees working for Google, there are also dozens of senior software engineers who have also put their signature on the letter.
They have criticized Google for involving itself in a Pentagon project.
Reports say that Google has helped a specific Pentagon project where it has used techniques from the field of artificial intelligence in order to interpret various kinds of video imagery.
Critics say that such methods could help the US military to improve its drone strikes and the targeting efficiency of those drone strikes.
This is also a good time to mention that the letter has also managed to circulate inside the company itself.
More than 3100 protesters have signed the letter.
From a broader perspective though, it feels like a reflection of a special kind of culture clash.
A culture clash between the United States federal government and Silicon Valley.
If things continue in the way they have so far, then one can expect the clash to intensify in the coming years as the military moves in to employ cutting-edge hardcore artificial intelligence for its own purposes in ever-expanding areas.
The letter itself is addressed to Sundar Pichai though.
In the beginning, the letter mentions that the employees working at Google have this firm belief that Google, as a technology company, should not engage its resources in the business of war.
The letter also asks the chief executive of the company (Sundar Pichai) to pull the company’s resources out of the latest Pentagon pilot program, Project Maven.
Moreover, these Google employees also want the company to announce a special policy in which it will have to declare that the company would never ever engage in building military warfare technology.
Some think the employees who have signed the letter have actually taken an idealistic stance.
Others think that Google should naturally not participate in developing any warfare technology since the company’s motto has always been Don’t Be Evil.
Google employees who have signed the letter have also invoked the phrase in it.
However, the letter is actually distinctly foreign to players such as Pentagon and Washington DC’s immense defense industry.
Jim Mattis, the defense secretary, has consistently held the opinion that the central goal of the government and military personnel is to improve the lethality with which the United States military can strike.
To be fair to Google, it is true that the company has always encouraged its employees to speak their mind about different issues that involved the technology giant.
In fact, it has done that since the very early days of its existence when it wasn’t much of a world-level influencer.
The company has made sure that its employees don’t face hurdles while trying to express their ideas which might not align with the company’s activities by providing them with social networks as well as internal message boards.
These are the tools that workers at the company can use in order to challenge the company’s management.
Workers can also use the same platform to challenge one another on issues related to Google’s policies and products.
In a recent incident, employees at the company used the same platform to debate Google’s various efforts in order to create a workforce that was more diverse.
Naturally, the debate went a bit out of hand as it heated up.
Eventually, the debate spilled out and went out in the open for everyone else to read and discuss.
Apart from the latest issue of the company helping the US military in improving its drone strike accuracy, employees working at Google has also circulated these protest petition on many other issues such as the company’s recent sponsorship of the Conservative Political Action Conference as well as Google Plus, which is Google’s answer to Facebook (though as a competitor, Google Plus is lagging far behind Facebook).
Using the letter, employees at the company have also raised some other questions regarding the company’s involvement in US military’s Project Maven.
Reports say that the issue even came up in a recent company-wide meeting.
Moreover, we have also come to know that at the time, the person who leads the company’s cloud infrastructure business, Diane Greene, actually defended the military deal.
Along with that she also sought to help and reassure all concerned Google employees.
One Google spokesman recently told the media that the majority of the signatures that the protest letter had, were actually collected before Google, as a company, had a chance to properly explain the entire situation with its involvement in Project Maven.
Subsequently, Google has tried to explain the company’s involvement and work with Pentagon’s Project Maven as completely non-offensive in its nature.
With that said, readers should know that Pentagon routinely makes use of video analysis technology for its counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations.
Additionally, the United States Defense Department (through its many publications) has made it clear that Project Maven actually supports the above-mentioned operations.
Both Pentagon and Google have previously mentioned that the technology giant’s products would not help any of the involved partners to create autonomous weapons systems which would have the ability to fire without the need of any human operator.
This is the point that has caused the heated debate:
The use of artificial intelligence in military weapons.
Assuming Google has provided the related technology then Pentagon could use its drone’s improve video analysis in order to accurately pick out human targets for various kinds of strikes.
Moreover, Pentagon could use the same technology to better identify civilians in order to reduce the possibilities of accidentally killing innocent citizens.
Sundar Pichai did not refer to the latter directly but did say in an official statement that any military project that made use of machine learning techniques would naturally raise rational and well-grounded concerns.
The company statement further added that Google, as a company, was actively engaged across all its divisions to discuss the topic in detail with the help of a comprehensive discussion session.
Google’s official statement actually referred to such exchanges as very beneficial and hugely important.
With that said, many of Google employees who had familiarity with the protest letter said they would only speak on the issue on the condition that their names remained anonymous.
These employees said that they had concerns about possible retaliation from the company.
Meanwhile, the official company statement clearly mentioned that Google’s involvement with the Pentagon pilot program, Project Maven, was restricted.
In other words, the company specifically scoped its involvement for only non-offensive purposes.
On the other hand, company officials have consistently declined to publicly make available all the relevant details about the language of its contract with Pentagon.
The United States Defense Department recently said that Google, in reality, had the position of a subcontractor on Pentagon’s Project Maven.
The Prime contractor to Project Maven was ECS Federal.
And hence, Google did not have sufficient information to provide in terms of the language of the company’s contract with Pentagon and/or the amount of the contract.
When reports reached out to ECS federal for a comment on the issue, it did not come up with a response.
Responding to another question, Google mentioned that Pentagon had used open-source object recognition software application.
And that the company had made available that open source object recognition software application to all Google Cloud customers.
Additionally, Pentagon-based all its use on unclassified data.
The technology giant also pointed out that the technology which Pentagon used only flagged images for further human review.
Moreover, Pentagon made use of the technology in order to save a lot of people from having to engage in work that was highly tedious.
Google also said that the technology would help Pentagon save lives.
It is no secret that a few of the top executives working at the technology company have major Pentagon connections.
Former Executive Chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt still happens to have his position as a member of Alphabet (Google’s parent company) executive board and also serves as a member of a Pentagon advisory body by the name of Defense Innovation Board.
Similar is also true for Milo Medin who is currently working as the vice president at Google.
Eric Schmidt, while giving an interview back in November, said that he, in reality, acknowledged the existence of a general concerned within the technology company itself that somehow the company had allowed the country’s military-industrial complex to use the company’s products in order to kill human beings incorrectly.
Furthermore, he added, that he served on the Defense Innovation Board precisely because he wanted to, at least, enable a semblance of communication to take place between the two parties.
Eric also made the suggestion that the United States military would make use of the company’s technology in order to assist keeping the country secure and safe.
Now, Google currently maintains a workforce of more than 70,000.
And only a tiny portion of those employees have this uneasiness about the company signing contracts with the United States military.
In other words, the issues of the company collaborating with Pentagon can’t possibly pose a big obstacle to the technology giant’s future growth.
Even though artificial intelligence research is a rarefied area, Google, as a company, has had to deal with intense competition from more than a couple of other technology companies in order to attract the most established and talented people.
Google’s various defense contracts and connections may hamper the company’s recruiters if a candidate has a distaste for such things.
It is also very interesting that while Google had to defend itself on issues such as its defense contracts and what not from all the dissent on the internet, other technology companies (many of which are Google competitors) have shown no shyness to publicize their own involvement and work on various projects with the US military.
Let’s take the example of Amazon.
Amazon, Google’s main threat in dominating the field of AI cloud, recently touted the company’s successful image recognition work in a project that it collaborated on with the United States Department of Defense.
Another technology giant, Microsoft (that recently surpassed Google to become the third most valuable company in the world) has also spent a lot of resources on promoting the fact that the company managed to successfully handle classified information with its cloud technology for each and every branch of the United States defense and military agencies.
Gizmodo first reported the current dispute which has focused a lot on Google and Project Maven.
Pentagon began the project last year as one of its many pilot programs.
Project Maven had one aim.
And that was to search and find all the ways the US military could speed up the process of implementing the latest artificial intelligence technology into various military applications.
According to an official Pentagon spokesman, Project Maven will cost around $70 million in the next 12 months.
There is no doubt about the fact that more and more players will try to use artificial intelligence in defense applications.
This will see the influence of artificial intelligence in military products grow very quickly.
Perhaps this is that signers of the protest letter at Google have seen.
And that’s why they hope they can succeed in discouraging Google from signing larger and more expensive defense contracts with Pentagon.
It is widely expected that Google will have to compete with all the other technology giants such as Microsoft as well as Amazon in winning multibillion-dollar and multiyear contracts from the Defense Department for providing the agency cloud services.
The chief management officer of the Defense Department, John Gibson, recently said that the agency had partly designed the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure Cloud procurement program in order to increase the readiness and lethality of the US military.
That statement from John Gibson, in effect, underscored the very plausible difficult in separating cloud, software and other related side services from what some have called the business of war.
The protest letter from some Google employees to Sundar Pichai has also argued that if the company did not back off from embracing such military work, it could have to face consequences such as alienating its customer base as well as potential recruits.
Employees who have signed the protest letter have also circulated the protest letter on the company’s internal communications system.
The protest letter also mentioned that Google’s contract with Pentagon, would also irreparably damage the company’s brand.
As a result of that, it will diminish the company’s ability to compete for top talent.
Google employees who signed the letter also mentioned in the letter that amid growing fears of weaponized and biased AI, the company has already embroiled itself in a struggle to keep a reasonable amount of public trust.
The protest letter also made the suggestion that if Google did not mend its ways it would risk the public viewing the company alongside the ranks of other big defense contractors such as,
- Palantir (a big-data firm)
- General Dynamics
According to the protest letter, the argument of other technology companies and firms such as Amazon and Microsoft doing the same by participating in winning defense contracts did not help the company one bit as it did not decrease the amount of risk Google would have to take on its public image and ability to attract the best of the best.
The letter also added that Google had a unique history.
And a unique motto:
Don’t Be Evil.
Moreover, according to the letter, Google had enough direct reach and influence to affect billions of users’ lives.
This fact made Google a unique technology company with unique needs.
Will Google be able to ride this out?
Or will it too force itself to confront the idealism which effectively acted as guide to the technology company in its early days?
Even if Google goes ahead to sign current and future military contracts, it would not make it any different from other technology companies who, just like Google, were onetime upstarts but then evolved into powerful and substantial Silicon Valley behemoths.
The best example of such technology companies is Facebook.
How did Facebook start?
It started with an innocent looking and lofty mission of enabling people all over the globe to connect with each other.
What has become of it now?
If recent events are taken into account, the company has come under a huge barrage of accusations where the US Congress and others in the EU have labeled the company as a huge conduit for all types of fake news.
Some even blamed Facebook for allowing Russia to easily influence the 2016 United States Presidential election.
Moreover, Russian operatives used Facebook tools in order to sow dissent among United States citizens/voters.