Google employees, it seems, do not want the company to work for the Pentagon Project Maven, which involves using artificial intelligence to analyze drone footage. A protest letter addressed to Google CEO Sundar Pichai has already gotten the support of over 3100 employees. “We believe that Google should not be in the business of war,” the letter reads, as reported by The New York Times.
Last month, Google announced that it had joined hands with the Department of Defense on Project Maven. The project involves the use of an algorithm to analyze and read innumerable hours of videos and images shot from the drones. Project Maven is intended to capitalize on computer vision technology to identify objects and faces in digital images.
Google has been in the business of developing the technology meant for various purposes such as image search and photo labeling. And, the said technology could prove useful for the Pentagon also as the military is focused on grounding the terrorist group ISIS, hunting for targets in drone footage that bare eyes could miss.
Under the deal with the Pentagon, Google offered its TensorFlow technology to the Department of Defense. Using the technology, the DoD will not only be able to analyze large amounts of data quickly, but also boost the ability of the connected drone system to flag the targets, hideouts, infrastructure and even civilians.
Google, however, has termed Project Maven as “non-offensive,” notes The Verge. Diane Greene, the head of Google’s cloud operation, suggested that the technology is not being deployed to “operate and fly drones” and “will not be used to launch weapons.” The disclaimer is clearly not convincing for some of the Google employees. “While this eliminates a narrow set of direct applications,” once the technology is delivered to the military, it can be used to assist such tasks, the letter reads.
Google is not the only tech giant to take up a defense project. Counterparts like Microsoft and Amazon have already lent their expertise in defense projects. But Google employees do not see this as a justification for the search giant to take up similar work.
“Google’s unique history, its motto ‘Don’t Be Evil,’ and its direct reach into the lives of billions of users set it apart,” the letter reads. Further, it says that such projects would weaken the company’s brand, making it hard for them to recruit the kind of talent they seek. Google employees are asking Pichai to create a policy that restricts Google and its contractors to not build warfare technology.
In a statement on Tuesday, Google noted that “any military use of machine learning naturally raises valid concerns.” Further, it said that discussions are ongoing for this important topic across the organization and that such conversation and discussions are “hugely important and beneficial.” However, several employees wanted to keep their identity under wraps while discussing the issue, notes The Times.
Google has reassured that the part they are playing in this project is non-offensive, and did not provide the details of the contract language. The Defense Department made it clear that since Google is the subcontractor on the project and ECS Federal is the prime contractor, it is not authorized to provide Google’s contract.
In the past, the search giant has been cautious about taking on military projects. Back in 2013, the company rejected funds from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) after taking over the group of robotics companies, which had a connection to the military research organization, notes The Verge.
While the fact that emerging technologies can make weapons multiple times more lethal cannot be ruled out, the same tech can also be used to save lives on the battlefield. Though the number of employees who signed the petition are only a fraction of the total strength, the crack is wide open between those who believe in Google’s corporate motto “Don’t be evil” and the rest of employees.
The situation is, however, not new as over the years managers at the organization have encouraged employees to voice their concerns freely within the organization. A few such discussions, in recent times, has gone horribly wrong including that of an engineer James Damore, who did not agree with the company’s diversity policy and argued that he was discriminated against because of his conservative views.
Whether or not Pichai considers the request of the employees is yet to be seen. But, given the connections that some top Google executives have with the Pentagon, it seems very unlikely. According to The Times, Eric Schmidt serves on the Pentagon advisory body, the Defense Innovation Board, as does a Google vice president, Milo Medin.