The Pentagon (AP/Shutterstock)

Google employees protest joint Pentagon drone program: We shouldn't be in "the business of war"

The Pentagon wants Google to help improve drones — but some employees are pushing back


Charlie May
April 5, 2018 8:35PM (UTC)

Google has proudly touted the motto "Don't Be Evil" but the tech titan's ties to the Pentagon are quite strong, presenting a moral dilemma for thousands of the company's employees who claim they've unwittingly been rendered culpable in aiding American warfare.

A letter addressed to Google's chief executive, Sundar Pichai, raised concerns over the company's role in Project Maven, a Pentagon pilot program that has sought to improve "artificial intelligence to interpret video imagery" which "could be used to improve the targeting of drone strikes," according to The New York Times.

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The letter has been signed by over 3,100 Google employees, including dozens of senior engineers.

"We believe that Google should not be in the business of war," the letter reads. "This plan will irreparably damage Google’s brand and its ability to compete for talent."

It continues, "Amid growing fears of biased and weaponized AI, Google is already struggling to keep the public’s trust." The letter expressed fears among employees that Google would join the ranks of top defense contractors such as Palantir, Raytheon and General Dynamics.

"The argument that other firms, like Microsoft and Amazon, are also participating doesn’t make this any less risky for Google," the letter states. "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 company didn't directly address the letter but said that "any military use of machine learning naturally raises valid concerns," according to the Times. Google went on to say it is "actively engaged across the company in a comprehensive discussion of this important topic."

As for its role in Project Maven, Google said it was "specifically scoped to be for non-offensive purposes." The project is said to cost $70 million and will "find ways to speed up the military application of the latest A.I. technology," the Times noted.

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The tech giant has close ties with the Defense Department, as Google's former executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, serves on the Defense Innovation Board for the department. Schmidt is still a current member of the Alphabet's executive board, which is Google's parent company, the Times noted. Schmidt pointed out last November that there was "a general concern in the tech community of somehow the military-industrial complex using their stuff to kill people incorrectly, if you will," the Times reported. But he added that his role in serving on the board was "to at least allow for communications to occur," because, he said, the military claimed to "use this technology to help keep the country safe."

The Times noted that "improved analysis of drone video could be used to pick out human targets for strikes, while also better identifying civilians to reduce the accidental killing of innocent people."

But it's also important to note that drone technology is deeply flawed, and the use of drones as a weapon in war zones has been widely condemned and thought to only breed more terrorists. While the internal debate continues about whether or not Google or its employees should assist drone technology for military operations, consider that the public has been robbed of a debate on the use of drones as a concept of warfare in the first place.

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Charlie May

Charlie May is a news writer at Salon. You can find him on Twitter at @charliejmay

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