Google Employees Asking Company to Withdraw From Pentagon AI Project

Helping build AI warfare technology will irreparably harm Google's brand and its technology industry reputation, workers say in letter to CEO Sundar Pichai.

Google Drone Image AI

At least some Google employees appear unhappy with their company's participation in a Pentagon initiative exploring the use of artificial intelligence techniques that could improve military drone weapons targeting. 

The New York Times April 4 reported that more than 3,100 Google employees have so far signed a letter addressed to CEO Sundar Pichai urging the company to withdraw from the effort. Among the signatories to the letter, which is circulating inside the company, are dozens of senior engineers at Google, the Times said. 

"We believe that Google should not be in the business of war," the letter—also posted by the Times—noted. "We ask that Project Maven be cancelled, and that Google draft, publicize and enforce a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology." 

News about Google's participation in Project Maven, as the Pentagon initiative is called became public last month after Gizmodo published a report on it. A Defense Department memo has described the effort as designed to accelerate the use of AI in analyzing full motion video captured by drones. 

The goal of the effort is to reduce human involvement in the process and to improve the quality of information available to drone analysts when making weapons strike decisions. 

The Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team (AWCFT), as the effort is more formally known was established in April 2017 as part of a broader Pentagon Defeat-ISIS campaign. Its current mission is to organize a data-labeling effort and develop or modify algorithms to accomplish specific tasks related to video analysis and to find a way to make that technology available in the field. 

Google itself has described its work on the project as involving only non-offensive uses of AI. The company has said all it is doing is helping the Pentagon with technology that can better flag drone images for human review. 

In a statement responding to the letter this week, a company spokesman reiterated Google's position on the matter. "Maven is a well-publicized 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 statement said. "The models are based on unclassified data only." 

The company characterized the work it is doing as intended to save lives. Google's statement conceded that any military work involving the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence would prompt concerns. It noted that the company is currently engaged in a "comprehensive discussion" of the topic with outside experts. 

Google's statement acknowledged the importance of employees engaging in discussions on Google's involvement in military projects. But the company gave no indication that the company will reconsider its participation in Project Maven. 

The employee letter itself described Project Maven as an effort to develop a "customized AI surveillance engine" that uses "Wide Area Motion Imagery" captured by government drones for the purposes of tracking vehicles and other objects. 

"This plan will irreparably damage Google’s brand and its ability to compete for talent," the letter said. "Amid growing fears of biased and weaponized AI, Google is already struggling to keep the public’s trust." By engaging in Project Maven, Google will join the ranks of U.S. defense contractors such as Raytheon, General Dynamics and Palantir and be in direct opposition to its core values, the letter said. 

Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Vijayan is an award-winning independent journalist and tech content creation specialist covering data security and privacy, business intelligence, big data and data analytics.