Google employees protest company’s involvement in Pentagon project
Thousands of Google employees, including senior members, have signed a letter protesting the company’s involvement in a Pentagon program that utilizes artificial intelligence to analyze video imagery that could be used to improve the accuracy of drone strikes. So far, the letter has gathered more than 3,100 signatures from employees who are uncomfortable with the idea their place of employment becoming involved in the war effort.
Last month, it was revealed that Google was involved with the Department of Defense and their Project Maven program, offering up their resources to develop computer vision algorithms used for analyzing drone footage. While the extent of Google’s involvement is unknown, a spokesperson for the company confirmed that they were giving the DOD access to its open source TensorFlow software, which is used in machine-learning applications.
Diane Greene, head of Google’s cloud operation and member of the board of directors, said the technology will not be used to “operate or fly drones” or “be used to launch weapons” Despite these reassurances, the letter signed by Google employees illustrates their disapproval being involved with the U.S. military. The letter states “While this eliminates a narrow set of direct applications, the technology is being built for the military, and once it’s delivered it could easily be used to assist in these tasks.”
The letter goes on asking the company to not participate in developing technology for warfare. “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.”
As reported by the New York Times, a Google spokesperson issued a response to the letter, stating “any military use of machine learning naturally raises valid concerns… We’re actively engaged across the company in a comprehensive discussion of this important topic.” The statement touches on the nature of the technology, saying it “is used to flag images for human review and is intended to save lives and save people from having to do highly tedious work.”
This comes at a time when other tech giants are under fire for a variety of reasons regarding privacy and involvement with government organizations. The development of artificial intelligence is regarded as a technology that could have massive positive or negative effects in the world, and the time will come when AI could be used for nefarious purposes regarding warfare and political espionage. This move by Google is a clear step towards competing with other companies like Amazon and Microsoft, both of which are said to be vying for securing lucrative government contracts associated with the Pentagon.
Despite the attempt of competing with the likes of these companies, the letter clearly emphasizes the danger it poses to the overall image of Google. “This plan will irreparably damage Google’s brand and its ability to compete for talent. Amid growing fear of biased and weaponized AI, Google is already struggling to keep the public’s trust.” With Google’s involvement in Project Maven, it suggests the company could be seen as joining the ranks of defense contractors like General Dynamics, Raytheon, and CIA supported big-data firm Palantir.
Going forward, this will be a telling time for Silicon Valley companies, who will be forced to confront the reality of having to choose between upholding their founding values, or pursuing government supported ventures at risk of alienating their customers and frustrated employees. Google is a company that has a direct influence in the lives of billions around the globe, and their motto Don’t Be Evil is still held to a higher standard by these 3,100+ employees who have demonstrated their denunciation with the company’s involvement in the war effort.