Upset employees make Google scrub project for the U.S. military

The logo of Google is pictured during the a conference. FILE May 25, 2018. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

SAN FRANCISCO – In a decision some have called “troubling,” Google will not renew a contract helping the U.S. military battle terrorism with analysis of aerial drone imagery, a person familiar with the matter said on Friday. The company is trying to defuse internal outbursts over Google’s work on Project Maven, a data analysis program.

Project Maven uses artificial intelligence to help soldiers in combat “turn the enormous volume of data available to DoD into actionable intelligence and insights,” according to the Defense Intelligence for Warfighter Support office.  The project is currently building algorithms to help translate video drone data into potentially life-saving intelligence for counter-terrorism efforts on the ground.

Google was helping with a part of that effort for the warfighters’ unit, but a faction of employees were opposed Google technology being used by the U.S. Department of Defense.  The dissidents said it clashed with the company’s stated principle of “doing no harm.” Google plans to honor what is left of its contract on Project Maven, a source said.

More than 4,600 employees identified themselves as “Maven Conscientious Objectors” and signed a petition calling for Google to cancel the deal, with at least 13 employees resigning in recent weeks in protest at Google‘s involvement, according to a second person familiar with the deal.

Through Project Maven, Google provides artificial intelligence technology to the Pentagon to help humans detect and identify threats captured by drone images. Company executives have defended the contract, saying its cloud computing and data analysis tools were being used for non-offensive tasks and would help save lives.

“I am incredibly happy about this decision, and have a deep respect for the many people who worked and risked to make it happen. Google should not be in the business of war,” Meredith Whittaker, a research scientist affiliated with Google and New York University, wrote on Twitter.

More than 700 Google employees had joined an online group inside the company to vent their concerns about the project and discuss ways of protesting against it.

Some employees planned to hold a public rally in San Francisco in July, coinciding with a Googleconference, according to one source. Company officials have told employees in recent months that the deal was seen as a gateway to further, more lucrative government work, the source said.

As Google ventures into new territory, a group of nine people are working on a set of ethical guidelines for any future military contracts. The guidelines will be released, “very, very soon,”Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai said in a recording of a staff meeting last week reviewed by Reuters.

Maven had an initial budget of $70 million. Google has told employees it was getting less than $10 million for its work on the program, according to one source who requested anonymity because the information has not been made public.

Selling cloud computing services, including the object detection tool being used with drone footage, is one of the top areas Google is counting on to diversify revenue. But Inc and Microsoft Corp have won far more cloud business.

Google in August 2017 hosted defense executives to demonstrate its artificial intelligence capabilities, according to a document shared with Google employees and seen by Reuters.

An internal email sent in October 2017 entitled “MAVEN Kickoff Meeting Notes” quoted Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan as saying during a meeting with Google in Mountain View, California, that he wanted “a built-in AI capability” in all future Department of Defense systems deployed in the field.

The announcement that Google will not participate in the defense project was called “troubling” by former deputy defense secretary Bob Work, who launched Project Maven. Now with the Center for American Security, Work said that Google’s cave to upset employees could dissuade other tech companies from using their skills to save lives on the battlefield.

“What about using artificial intelligence to power robots that defuse bombs or IEDs? Or using AI to prevent cyberattacks on our electrical grid?” Work told the Washington Post. “All of these would save the lives of our people or protect our networks or society. That would seem like things employees of Google might be proud to do.”

Google’s announcement has also been met with strong criticism among some rank-and-file intelligence officers who’ve pointed out on social media that it comes the week after Memorial Day as the nation remembers more than 2,300 American soldiers that have been killed in Afghanistan and more than 4,500 killed in Iraq since September 11, 2001.

Reuters News Service contributed to this report.