Technology

Employees leaving Google for controversial Pentagon AI project, But why?

Project Maven Google
geralt / Pixabay

Google’s involvement with the Pentagon defense project – Project Maven – has been facing wide criticism from the employees ever since the news first came out. However, now the protest has gone to the next level with several employees reportedly resigning from the organization.

Under Google’s Pentagon project, dubbed as Project Maven, the search giant uses artificial intelligence to analyze images taken by aerial drones. Google’s involvement with Project Maven has not gone well with the employees, who earlier started circulating internal letters protesting Google’s involvement, and now, believe that resigning is the best way to protest.

“At some point, I realized I could not in good faith recommend anyone join Google, knowing what I knew. I realized if I can’t recommend people join here, then why am I still here?” a former Google employee told Gizmodo. Employees claim that the search giant has been less transparent with employees and is less concerned with the employees and staffers resignation.

Project Maven is concerned with using AI in analyzing aerial drone footage to look for things that the human eye may have missed. The primary aim of the Pentagon is to defeat the terrorist group ISIS by sealing up any loopholes and making better “military decisions.”

The Pentagon’s efforts to integrate AI into its defense system started last year when the military commanders and technology executives met at the Pentagon Silicon Valley outpost. It was the second meeting, which was also attended by Google vice president, Milo Medin, and Google’s former boss, Eric Schmidt. A few months later, Google was hired for Project Maven.

Medin and Schmidt, who are on the Pentagon Defense Innovation Board, have been pushing the search giant to work with the government on counter terrorism, cybersecurity and telecommunications among other projects. Google could earn millions in revenue from the Pentagon project.

However, the employees in the San Francisco Bay Area have condemned Google’s decision of getting into the “business of war.” This is possibly the first time so many Google employees have resigned in protest.

Also, around 4,000 employees signed a letter asking CEO Sundar Pichai to abandon the Project Maven contract. The protest, which throws light on the Silicon Valley companies deploying data and technology, has forced an action from Pichai. His team is reportedly drafting ethical principles to guide the deployment of Google’s powerful AI tech. According to Mercury News, citing sources familiar with the plan, the draft would shape the future work of the company.

Further, Google is also reportedly in the race of clutching the Pentagon cloud contract worth around $10 billion. As of now, it is not clear if the company is still pursuing the project after the internal protest over the military work. Pichai’s topmost priority is to make sure that the search giant continues to get work in the defense area, but keep it within ethical limits.

Google is an undisputed leader in AI research and abilities, not to mention the company is keen to bake those abilities in its fast-growing cloud-computing business. Rivals, on the other hand, are also exploring opportunities to cut deals with the government. No government agency spends more on the cloud and AI technology more than the military does.

Google employees are not alone in opposing Google’s involvement in the Pentagon project. The International Committee for Robot Arms Control also wrote an open letter supporting the Google employees. Members of the group are the voice of numerous universities across the world and have urged Google’s top management to pay heed to their employees. The group notes that if Google keeps working on such defense projects, then users could face the risk of being stripped of their privacy as Google knows everything about everyone.

Over 200 professors, academics and scientists signed the open letter criticizing Google’s participation in Project Maven stating that the technologies that the search giant is talking so casually about could be easily weaponized. “We are then just a short step away from authorizing autonomous drones to kill automatically, without human supervision or meaningful human control,” the letter said.

Google has not made any official comment on the employee resignations. However, the company has been saying that their involvement in Project Maven is strictly non-offensive. Further, the computer vision technology involved is also open source and available to all the cloud customers.

Speaking to PCMag, Google said the technology is about collecting the images for human review and is focused on saving lives and saving people from having to do highly tedious work.