Google wants out of Maven — the program that relies on artificial intelligence to interpret video images.
I for one am not the least bit surprised.
By way of background: In early April, The New York Times reported 3,100 Google employees signed a letter asking the company to pull out of the program, which would use Google’s AI technology to help identify objects in drone video. Those objects could become targets, employees argued, and they didn’t want their talents being used or potentially used as a weapon of war. Wanting to avoid a mass exodus, Google told employees earlier this month that it would not renew the contract with the Pentagon after the current deal expires next year.
My colleague Mike Gruss described the letter in his own editorial for sister publication C4ISRNET as an act of pacifism. He also argued that it could be viewed as a subtle attack on the outreach to the tech community.
“Pentagon leaders have not made a convincing case as to why their dollars and their vision to change the world are any more altruistic than the next guy with billion-dollar pockets,” he said. The Pentagon wants to move faster and is looking to Silicon Valley to do so, but Silicon Valley can’t quite sync up culturally with the ultimate goals of the Pentagon, he added. It’s a lost cause.
There is some truth in that argument. I’d take it one step further and say not only does Silicon Valley have a hard time getting on the same page culturally with Washington — it doesn’t particularly feel the need to do so. The returns on government contracts are lower than commercial, and there is no shortage of opportunities in their own sandbox. I have argued before that there is simply not enough incentive for such companies to bother.
But if a more pacifist culture is truly partially to blame for the Washington-tech disconnect, why aren’t Amazon and Microsoft employees raising hell over the JEDI cloud contract, considering it in theory will support battlefield operations? One could perhaps argue JEDI is a simple enterprise IT contract, less directly linked to warfare intelligence. But if the Pentagon realizes the full vision of JEDI, all of the drone imagery could ultimately live in that cloud infrastructure, and all the transactions of data sharing for the sake of intelligence would in whole or in part reside there. It would be a hub of intelligence gathering.
So really, is Maven that much different? And could we not argue that Maven supports not a weapon of war but rather situational awareness — providing the Pentagon with more granular data to ensure it doesn’t make frivolous decisions when it comes to strikes?
Yes, the decision to pull out of Maven does reflect a clash of cultures. But in this particular case, Google’s employees got ahead of the marketing team with this letter — owning the message and preventing the company or the Pentagon from painting a rosier picture on a contract that could be interpreted in any number of ways. No surprise — the Pentagon doesn’t speak about such things, and Google probably followed its lead, hoping nobody would make a fuss. But if these two communities are ever to coexist, there just may need to be a little more handholding.
And let’s not forget one other thing: Google is not Amazon. Amazon may be a technological marvel, but it’s still ultimately perceived as an e-commerce site. Politics don’t typically get in the way of its empire. Google — much like Facebook and other social media applications — is in the business of data analytics. Often people’s data for that matter. And that makes everything they do political.
Just ask Mark Zuckerberg.
Jill Aitoro is editor of Defense News. She is also executive editor of Sightline Media's Business-to-Government group, including Defense News, C4ISRNET, Federal Times and Fifth Domain. She brings over 15 years’ experience in editing and reporting on defense and federal programs, policy, procurement, and technology.