Why might a coder not want to code a weapon? As the Pentagon looks to Silicon Valley for the software and sensor management it wants to power future capabilities, that’s a question the military is struggling to answer. One attempt to pose the question came Aug. 28, from Lucas Kunce, a Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“For me, it’s hard to understand why tech employees would not want to help their fellow Americans survive on the battlefield and accomplish their missions in the safest and least damaging way possible,” Kunce wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed, imploring the tech sector to work with the military to mitigate the harms of war. (Kunce, I should note, is careful to state that the views expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Defense).
Understanding the relationship between technology workers and battle means thinking about labor. And, at the very least, it means listening to what workers say about what they choose to do.
I’m Kelsey D. Atherton, reporting from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I hope you had a restorative Labor Day. This is the sixth installment of Tomorrow Wars.
At the heart of the tensions between the Pentagon and Silicon Valley are two high-profile petitions. The first was signed and circulated by workers at Google opposed to the company’s participation in developing image processing algorithms for Project Maven. The second was circulated among workers at Microsoft in protest of the company adapting augmented reality tool HoloLens for the battlefield.
The petitions are worth reading in full. Notably, the petition from Google workers said says “We cannot outsource the moral responsibility of our technologies to third parties,” and goes on to clarify that “Building this technology to assist the US Government in military surveillance – and potentially lethal outcomes – is not acceptable.”
Likewise, the petition signed and circulated by Microsoft workers draws a distinction between making weapons and non-weapons for military use. It reads, in part, “While the company has previously licensed tech to the U.S. Military, it has never crossed the line into weapons development. With this contract, it does. The application of HoloLens within the IVAS system is designed to help people kill. It will be deployed on the battlefield, and works by turning warfare into a simulated ‘video game,’ further distancing soldiers from the grim stakes of war and the reality of bloodshed. Intent to harm is not an acceptable use of our technology.”
The moral dimensions of this debate are beyond the scope of this newsletter, but there is a fundamental challenge of technology that sets the moral conflict in place. Both Project Maven and HoloLens adapt image processing tools built for the commercial market to military ends, albeit with specific labor from workers making the adaptation possible. Without the skilled workers familiar with these projects, the technology would not exist at present, much less exist specifically for the military.
Dual use technologies are far harder to place in either an arms control or a national security framework, since so much of the utility of the technology relies on the speed and resources of commercial development. (That much of Silicon Valley is built on dual use technologies whose development was originally funded for military research is a facet not lost on many engaged in all parts of this discourse.) These technologies also complicate the international picture, where government-funded AI partnerships with private companies abroad could ultimately fuel the development of new military software.>
Technology is a human project. That human concerns are many and varied should not be a hindrance to military planners and designers trying to anticipate an uncertain and technology-rich future.
° 1. NOTHING TO LOSE BUT YOUR SUPPLY CHAINS
A modern printer is a computer that has a particular relationship with paper. That a printer prints is, for cybersecurity purposes, secondary to the reality that it is a machine linked into a network that processes lots of documents. Using a Department of Defense Inspector General report that highlighted cybersecurity risks from across a range of commercial-off-the-shelf technologies originating in China, including some printers, Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin and Roslyn Layton of China Tech Threat argued that the United States needs to do a better job of securing its technology supply chain, to ensure no foreign-made parts are surreptitiously recording and transmitting data back governments engaged in strategic competition with the United States. It is a security goal that has some tension with the Pentagon’s own desire to use more cheap commercial technology.
° 2. A SPECTRE HAUNTING THE ARCTIC
As the world’s ice caps melt, militaries are preparing to contest once largely impassable seaways. A new Russian-made quadcopter, the SeaDrone, is built with a waterproof body and an algorithm that can adjust to the vagaries of magnetometer weirdness near the poles, is one possible adaptation. SeaDrone is likely possible thanks to a large and existing commercial quadcopter parts market, but Russia has adapted some technology in light of more self-sufficient goals.
After Russia’s FEDOR android robot was filmed firing weapons, embargoes and sanctions on robot parts led the robot-makers to built it from more domestic supply, leading to a robot that is over half Russian-made parts. FEDOR has also been rededicated to peace, with a model launched to the International Space Station for scientific research.
° 3. VIOLENT VIBRATIONS BETWEEN HOPE AND FEAR
The way a rocket shakes in flight matters a great deal for the payloads carried on board, with the jostling potentially disabling important sensors or systems before they are even launched into orbit or back towards earth. Using pea-sized vibration sensors on sounding rockets fired from the Kauai Test Facility in Hawaii, Sandia Labs researchers believe they can more accurately understand the dynamics of the rocket in flight, and hope to extend that knowledge to rocket- and missile-makers, potentially cutting down development cycles by as much as a year.
° 4. THE 18TH BACKRONYM OF NAPOLEON III
Here at the Tomorrow Wars studio, we love acronyms warped backwards to sound like special features on a G.I. Joe playset. Have a favorite backronym? This fortnight, our backronym comes from Sandia Labs, where “High Operational Tempo Sounding Rocket Program” becomes HOT SHOT, I guess. Maybe you know a secret NAME (Nomenclature Ambivalent Machine, Eventually)? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I might include it in a future issue.
That’s all for this fortnight. Questions, comments, or inquires about whether or not 2005’s “Stealth” is a better frame for understanding lethal AI and 1984’s “Terminator”, email me at email@example.com.
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