The backlash to Google’s work on a US military artificial-intelligence project began inside the tech giant, but in recent weeks, it has spilled into the public. As employees resigned in protest over Google’s work with Project Maven, which uses AI to identify potential drone targets in satellite images, reports revealed top executives fretting over how it will be perceived by the public. On Friday, Google changed course, as Google Cloud CEO Diane Greene announced internally that the company will not renew the contract for Project Maven, according to Gizmodo. The current contract expires in 2019.
Google’s precise involvement in the project is not clear, but the relationship has caused enough controversy inside the company that several employees have quit in protest and more than 4,000 employees signed a petition arguing against the contract. Tensions intensified this week when reports showed executives agonizing over how to downplay the ominous-sounding AI aspects of the contract in the media.
Google is not the only large tech company to work with the military, nor would stopping the contract prevent the military from getting its hands on AI technology. But Google has a culture of allowing employees to speak up on internal message boards, a rosy mission to make information “accessible and useful” and an oft-cited motto of “don’t be evil.” Pentagon officials are planning to expand Project Maven to analyze more parts of the globe and other types of data, such as the contents of captured disk drives.
The Google controversy highlights the emerging role of artificial intelligence in defense and warfare. Silicon Valley companies are global leaders in AI, which some experts think will revolutionize war as much as nuclear weapons. That’s led to calls in some quarters to ban some uses of the technology.
Meanwhile, as tech companies invade nearly every aspect of our lives, many have shown they prioritize growth over ethical concerns or negative effects of their products. Lately most of the criticism has fallen to Facebook. While misinformation and Russian meddling in the US presidential election occurred across many websites and services, Facebook has taken the most heat, in part because of its products touch billions of people, and in part because of the privacy violations that occurred through Cambridge Analytica.
Google’s defense contract controversy is not likely to balloon into the scale of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal. But it reflects a growing fear among tech workers that their work is not making the world a better place. The controversy also shows a desire among rank-and-file tech employees to draw attention to issues by speaking up internally and, if that doesn’t work, forcing the company’s hand by leaking to the media. Silicon Valley tech giants have long preached transparency while profiting from (voluntary) invasions of privacy. They’re less accustomed to having their every move picked apart by the public. Google is aware of this shift, and, as Friday’s news shows, prepared to react quickly. Speaking to employees, Greene reportedly stressed the importance of Google taking a leadership role in the conversation around ethics in the use of AI.
Google declined to comment.