For decades, the U.S. military and tech companies have worked to produce game changing technologies — from duct tape to the EpiPen to the internet — with benefits extending far beyond their initial purpose. Military spending and military requirements helped drive the meteoric rise of Silicon Valley.
The irony is that the engine responsible for sourcing game-changing technology and personal fortunes is now under fire from a small, but vocal, minority.
Over the last several months, a group of employees at Google battled the company’s leadership to cancel a contract with the Pentagon for Project Maven, an artificial intelligence software that interprets images from unmanned drones.
About 4,000 Google employees signed a letter arguing that the company should not get involved “in the business of war.” They demanded Google put in place a policy dictating that the company will never “build warfare technology.” The company’s leadership recently capitulated, announcing it would not renew the contract. Instead, it announced a policy to avoid controversial projects, but allow it to bid on other profitable ones.
From the point of view of a non-profit that works to connect innovative technology companies with the Department of Defense, I understand the concerns of individuals who don’t want to work on defense contracts. And I respect and support their right to act in the manner in which they did.
However, the letter from Google employees displays a remarkably myopic understanding of the work of our military. From disaster relief to protecting our diplomats, the U.S. military has a broad mission.
And we must remember who is ultimately harmed when companies with cutting-edge technologies refuse to partner in national defense efforts: our nation’s warfighters.
In fact, the Pentagon needs the technology community more today than it has at any time in the recent past. As Undersecretary of Defense Ellen Lord said in congressional testimony last December, “Inarguably … the current pace at which we develop advanced capability is being eclipsed by those nations that pose the greatest threat to security, seriously eroding our measure of overmatch.”
The partnership between government and the private sector has always been key to our technological edge, not only on the frontlines but also in the marketplace.
Employees at technology companies should be concerned about the end use of their technologies. But total disengagement is never the answer. Walking away from the table will not stop technology they develop from being used by adversaries around the globe in a manner they may find objectionable. After all, as Google’s own investigation unveiled, information (especially targeted advertisements displayed on their very own platforms), the very currency of Google, was weaponized to influence recent world events.
Just because someone used Google’s platform for evil ends does not make Google nor its technology evil. But because its platform and its business model was the vehicle, it does impart a responsibility on Google to support of national security efforts to stop information weaponry.
But in this case, the manner of the engagement matters. Technology companies, especially global giants with the reach and influence of Google, do not have the luxury of simply being good citizens. When it comes to technology-driven emerging threats such as artificial intelligence and information warfare, Google is not just in the arena. Google is the arena. They must be both an informed and engaged party in the intersection of technology and national security.
The AI Principles released last week by Google are a favorable sign that the company takes its responsibility to remain engaged seriously. However, Google cannot ignore its position in the world. There is no Switzerland in the information battlefield. Google must remain open to directly supporting national security efforts.
As Elie Wiesel famously said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”
It’s worth a read. Google it.