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Google will not renew Pentagon contract that upset employees
GOOGLE, hoping to head off a rebellion by employees upset that the technology they were working on could be used for lethal purposes, will not renew a contract with the Pentagon for artificial intelligence work when a current deal expires next year.
Diane Greene, who is the head of the Google Cloud business that won a contract with the Pentagon's Project Maven, said during a weekly meeting with employees on Friday that the company was backing away from its AI work with the military, according to a person familiar with the discussion but not permitted to speak publicly about it.
Google's work with the Defense Department on the Maven program, which uses artificial intelligence to interpret video images and could be used to improve the targeting of drone strikes, roiled the internet giant's workforce. Many of the company's top AI researchers, in particular, worried that the contract was the first step towards using the nascent technology in advanced weapons.
But it is not unusual for Silicon Valley's big companies to have deep military ties. And the internal dissent over Maven stands in contrast to Google's biggest competitors for selling cloud-computing services - Amazon.com and Microsoft - which have aggressively pursued Pentagon contracts without pushback from their employees.
Google's self-image is different - it once had a motto of "don't be evil." A number of its top technical talent said the internet company was betraying its idealistic principles, even as its business-minded officials worried that the protests would damage its chances to secure more business from the Defense Department.
About 4,000 Google employees signed a petition demanding "a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology." A handful of employees resigned in protest, while some were openly calling on the company to cancel the Maven contract.
Months before the deal became public, senior Google officials were worried about how the Maven contract would be perceived inside and outside the company, The New York Times reported last this week. By courting business with the Pentagon, they risked angering a number of the company's highly regarded AI researchers, who had vowed that their work would not become militarised.
Jim Mattis, the defence secretary, had reached out to tech companies and sought their support and cooperation as the Pentagon makes artificial intelligence a centrepiece of its weapons strategy. The decision made by Google on Friday is a setback to that outreach.
But if Google drops out of some or all of the competition to sell the software that will guide future weaponry, the Pentagon will likely find plenty of other companies happy to take the lucrative business. A Defense Department spokeswoman did not reply to a request for comment Friday.
Ms Greene's comments were reported earlier by Gizmodo.
The money for Google in the Project Maven contract was never large by the standards of a company with revenue of US$110 billion last year - US$9 million, one official told employees, or a possible US$15 million over 18 months, according to an internal email.
But some company officials saw it as an opening to much greater revenue down the road. In an email last September, a Google official in Washington told colleagues she expected Maven to grow into a US$250 million-a-year project, and eventually it could have helped open the door to contracts worth far more; notably a multiyear, multibillion-dollar cloud computing project called JEDI, or Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure.
Whether Google's Maven decision is a short-term reaction to employee protests and adverse news coverage or reflects a more sweeping strategy not to pursue military work is unclear. The question of whether a particular contract contributes to warfare does not always have a simple answer.
When the Maven work came under fire inside Google, company officials asserted that it was not "offensive" in nature. But Maven is using the company's artificial intelligence software to improve the sorting and analysis of imagery from drones, and some drones rely on such analysis to identify human targets for lethal missile shots.
Google management had told employees that it would produce a set of principles to guide its choices in the use of artificial intelligence for defence and intelligence contracting. At Friday's meeting, Ms Greene said the company was expected to announce those guidelines next week. NYTIMES