Google Plans Not to Renew its Defense Department Contract

Influenced by employee discontent, Google will not renew a contract with the Pentagon’s Project Maven when it expires next year. Google Cloud business head Diane Greene, who won the contract, was the one who announced the company’s decision in a weekly employee meeting. The Maven project uses artificial intelligence to interpret video images and, among its potential uses, could be employed to improve drone attack targeting. Many Google AI researchers worried aloud that it was a step towards using AI for advanced weaponry.

The New York Times reports that, “it is not unusual for Silicon Valley’s big companies to have deep military ties,” and that Amazon and Microsoft have both “aggressively pursued Pentagon contracts without pushback from their employees.” But at Google — whose motto was once “don’t be evil” — “a number of its top technical talent said the Internet company was betraying its idealistic principles.”

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Four thousand employees signed a petition asking for “a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology … [and] a handful of employees also resigned in protest.” Google is expected to release “a set of principles to guide its choices in the use of artificial intelligence for defense and intelligence contracting” next week.

Senior Google officials “were worried about how the Maven contract would be perceived inside and outside the company.” The Defense Department secretary Jim Mattis had “reached out to tech companies and sought their support and cooperation as the Pentagon makes artificial intelligence a centerpiece of its weapons strategy.” As Google withdraws from the contract, “the Pentagon is likely to find plenty of other companies happy to take the lucrative business.”

Google’s Pentagon contract was small change for the company — one official told employees it was $9 million or possibly $15 million over 18 months. But one Google official said, “she expected Maven to grow into a $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.”