Thousands of Google employees asked CEO Sundar Pichai to stop providing AI tech for the US military’s drones
Google has long avoided being part of the military industrial complex, to the point where it seems to have been an unofficial company policy
By Greg Sandoval
Thousands of Google employees have pleaded in a letter to CEO Sundar Pichai to stop providing technology to the Pentagon that could be used to improve the accuracy of drone attacks.
“We believe that Google should not be in the business of war,” wrote the signers of the letter circulating within the company, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times.
The signers, who represent a fraction of parent company Alphabet’s 70,000 employees, ask that Google withdraw from Project Maven, a Pentagon pilot programme, and for the company to pledge to never again “build warfare technology.”
On Wednesday, in response to questions from Business Insider, a Google spokeswoman forwarded a statement. “We know that there are many open questions involved in the use of new technologies, so these conversations - with employees and outside experts - are hugely important and beneficial,” the statement read in part.
Last month, Google shocked many inside and outside the Mountain View-based company when it confirmed that it was providing the US military with artificial-intelligence technology that interprets video imagery. According to experts, the technology could be used to better pinpoint bombing targets. The revelation first appeared in a report by Gizmodo.
An internal schism
Responding to Gizmodo’s story, Google said the company’s technology was “non-offensive” in nature and noted that the AI might assist military planners from hitting civilians. Google and the Pentagon added that the work under Project Maven would not lead to any autonomous weapons systems, the kind of robotic killing machines that critics fear will rise when AI is combined with weapon systems. Apparently, this came as small solace to some Google employees.
Google has long been associated with the corporate motto “Don’t be evil,” and news the company had become a defence contractor has created something of internal schism, according to the Times report. Still, disagreements within the company are nothing new. Managers have long encouraged workers to voice opinions and concerns about Google’s direction.
In the past, petitions have been circulated on a range of issues including Google’s sponsorship of a right-leaning conference. One internal debate led to the firing of James Damore, an engineer, who was critical of the company’s diversity policies and claimed he was discriminated because of his conservative views.
How much effect the letter to Pichai will have remains to be seen but the company’s ties to the Pentagon go beyond Project Maven. Eric Schmidt, Google’s former CEO and a current member of the executive board of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is a member of a Pentagon advisory board.
Below is a copy of Google’s full statement to Business Insider.
“An important part of our culture is having employees who are actively engaged in the work that we do. We know that there are many open questions involved in the use of new technologies, so these conversations - with employees and outside experts - are hugely important and beneficial. Maven is a well publicised DoD project and Google is working on one part of it - specifically scoped to be for non-offensive purposes and using open-source object recognition software available to any Google Cloud customer. The models are based on unclassified data only. The technology is used to flag images for human review and is intended to save lives and save people from having to do highly tedious work. 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 and also with outside experts, as we continue to develop our policies around the development and use of our machine learning technologies.”