Earlier this year, Google CEO Sundar Pichai declared that artificial intelligence was going to have a more profound impact on the world than electricity or fire. But he recently promised that there would be one area in which Google would refrain from unleashing its vast potential: weaponry. After all, war is the most profitable business there is, why wouldn’t capitalists want a piece of the action, morals rarely come in to making money.
But last year, Google appeared to go down this route by entering into its first major AI contract with the Pentagon. Project Maven, as it is known, uses machine learning and engineering talent to distinguish people and objects in drone videos, established in a memo by the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense on 26 April 2017. Also known as the Algorithmic Warfare Cross Functional Team, it is, according to Lt. Gen. of the United States Air Force Jack Shanahan in November 2017, a project
designed to be that pilot project, that pathfinder, that spark that kindles the flame front of artificial intelligence across the rest of the [Defense] Department.
Its chief, U.S. Marine Corps Col. Drew Cukor, said
People and computers will work symbiotically to increase the ability of weapon systems to detect objects.
At the second Defense One Tech Summit in July 2017, Cukor also said that the investment in a
deliberate workflow process
was funded by the Department [of Defense] through its rapid acquisition authorities for about “the next 36 months”.
Google has now declared that it won’t renew the Maven contract when it expires next year, and will eschew any technologies that cause or are likely to cause overall harm. This about-turn is not the result of an epiphany on Pichai’s part. It’s the result of pressure from his own staff, thousands of whom protested against Project Maven. They weren’t won over by claims that this was a one-off project, initially said to be worth $9m, with strictly non-offensive purposes. They rightly saw it as an audition for a much deeper collaboration with the Pentagon. It was part of Google’s push to win the $10bn Joint Enterprise Defence Infrastructure (Jedi) contract. Described by some as potentially the largest IT procurement project in history. Jedi is designed to set up a cloud computing system that can network American forces all over the world and integrate them with AI.
Thankfully, tech workers have become politicised in the Trump era. They protested in 2016 against the idea of a Muslim database, and they’re equally horrified by the idea of autonomous weapons. The end of Project Maven is a big win against US militarism. Arguments over automation are spurious as aim primarily is to to shorten the loop between detection and response, that gives best chance of minimising collateral damage. Maintaining people in the loop over final decision has always been a military aim in limited war to minimise chance of error, and with that risk of political defeat.
But in the end, conflict is uncertain, with risk; putting that risk mainly on an enemy matters most.
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