Google workers quit in protest over A.I. work on weaponized drones

Google workers quit in protest over A.I. work on weaponized drones.

As many as a dozen Google employees quit their jobs Monday in protest over the company’s agreement to provide artificial intelligence technology to the Pentagon for use in improving weaponized drone strikes.

The U.S. Department of Defense initiative is known as Project Maven, and the resigning Google employees are concerned the company is helping the federal government use artificial intelligence to automate the process of classifying images of objects and people captured by drones. The project uses computer vision to autonomously extract objects from photos and video. The technology could be used to better identify human targets for strikes.

“The resigning employees’ frustrations range from particular ethical concerns over the use of artificial intelligence in drone warfare to broader worries about Google’s political decisions – and the erosion of user trust that could result from these actions,” the technology blog Gizmodo reported Monday.

Just last month, more than 3,000 Google employees signed a petition protesting Google’s involvement with the Department of Defense and Project Maven, also known as the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Function Team.

“We believe that Google should not be in the business of war,” they wrote in a letter warning that Google could damage its brand and diminish public trust in the company.

MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Master Sgt. Robert Shepherd)
MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Master Sgt. Robert Shepherd)

The Pentagon said Project Maven aims to develop and integrate “computer-vision algorithms needed to help military and civilian analysts encumbered by the sheer volume of full-motion video data that DoD collects every day in support of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations.” According to the DoD plans, the first set of algorithms was scheduled to be installed in “warfighting systems” by late 2017. Microsoft and Amazon are also partners in the project, according to reports.

The Pentagon’s technology is limited to identifying basic objects such as vehicles and people, according to Gizmodo.

The Google workers who resigned claim company executives are making controversial decisions without being transparent with employees and aren’t receptive to feedback from the workforce.

“In the case of Maven, Google is helping the Defense Department implement machine learning to classify images gathered by drones,” Gizmodo reported. “But some employees believe humans, not algorithms, should be responsible for this sensitive and potentially lethal work—and that Google shouldn’t be involved in military work at all. … [T]hese are the first known mass resignations at Google in protest against one of the company’s business decisions, and they speak to the strongly felt ethical concerns of the employees who are departing.”

According to the site, Google is also a top contender to win a contract for the Pentagon’s cloud computing system, which is known as Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI.

Some resigning employees insist Google should adhere to do-gooder principles and resist involvement in Pentagon work.

“It’s not like Google is this little machine-learning startup that’s trying to find clients in different industries,” one worker told Gizmodo. “It just seems like it makes sense for Google and Google’s reputation to stay out of that.”

A July 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Defense quoted one official who said the technology is part of a new “A.I. arms race.”

“We are in an A.I. arms race,” Marine Corps Col. Drew Cukor told a Defense One Tech Summit. “… It’s happening in industry [and] the big five Internet companies are pursuing this heavily. Many of you will have noted that Eric Schmidt [executive chairman of Alphabet Inc.] is calling Google an A.I. company now, not a data company.”

Col. Cukor said the new technology is “frankly … stunning.”

“No area will be left unaffected by the impact of this technology,” he said.

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