A letter signed by thousands of Google employees and addressed to Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai proclaims that Google should abstain from “the business of war.”
The letter, endorsed by over 3,100 employees of the tech giant, asks Google to cease all work on Project Maven, which is described as “a customized AI surveillance engine that uses ‘Wide Area Motion Imagery’ data captured by US Government drones to detect vehicles and other objects, track their motions, and provide results to the Department of Defense.”
The letter implores Google to do two things: First, to immediately cancel all involvement with Project Maven, and second, to “draft, publicize, and enforce a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology.” If not, the dissenting voices believe that “this plan will irreparably damage Google’s brand and its ability to compete for talent.”
The letter implores the company at large not to “outsource the moral responsibility of our technologies to third parties,” saying that “building this technology to assist the US Government in military surveillance — and potentially lethal outcomes — is not acceptable.”
Ironically, Project Maven’s purpose is to reduce unnecessary civilian casualties, and both Google and the Pentagon itself have affirmed that the company will not be involved in the creation of any completely autonomous weapons systems. Google has characterized its work with the Pentagon as “non-offensive” in nature.
At a recent company-wide meeting, Google executive Diane Greene attempted to reassure employees and make a case for the project’s continuance. According to the company, the letter was circulated before the company had that chance to better explain the situation.
Later, Pichai himself released a statement addressing the project, though he neglected to mention the letter of protest directly. He said that while “any military use of machine learning naturally raises valid concerns,” Google remained “actively engaged across the company in a comprehensive discussion of this important topic.” Pichai also asserted that the internal dialogue was “hugely important and beneficial,” and, again, that their work was “specifically scoped to be for non-offensive purposes.”
Whether the response — as well as the stated goals of Project Maven itself — are disingenuous remains to be seen. At this point, it does not appear that the behemoth megacorporation is slowing its pace, regardless of employee reaction. Optimally, Google’s work with the project will provide a way to make aerial drone assaults much less lethal to any but those they are targeting.