Over 3,000 Google employees have a signed a petition in protest against the company’s involvement with a U.S. Department of Defense artificial intelligence (AI) project that studies imagery and could eventually be used to improve drone strikes in the battlefield.
In an open letter addressed to CEO Sundar Pichai, Google employees expressed concern that the U.S. military could weaponize AI and apply the technology towards refining drone strikes and other kinds of lethal attacks.
“We believe that Google should not be in the business of war,” the letter begins, before going on to explain that Google’s involvement in Project Maven stands to damage its brand and its trust among the public.
According to the defense department, Project Maven, also known as the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Function Team, launched in April 2017.
Among its objectives, the project aims to develop and integrate “computer-vision algorithms needed to help military and civilian analysts encumbered by the sheer volume of full-motion video data that DoD collects every day in support of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations,” according to the Pentagon.
The Pentagon had planned to have its first set of algorithms installed to “warfighting systems” by the end of 2017.
The petition, originally published in the New York Times, also rejects the argument that Google’s involvement isn’t problematic because the likes of Microsoft and Amazon are also partners in the project, stating that Google’s unique history and influence set it apart.
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A Google spokesperson described to the Times the company’s involvement with Project Maven as “non-offensive” in nature.
As the tech news site Gizmodo pointed out last month, the Pentagon’s recognition technology was limited to only identifying simple objects such as cars and people, not more complex situations.
A spokesperson confirmed to the tech site that Google was providing the defense department with TensorFlow APIs, which help military analysts detect certain objects in imagery.
“We have long worked with government agencies to provide technology solutions. This specific project is a pilot with the Department of Defense, to provide open source TensorFlow APIs that can assist in object recognition on unclassified data,” Gizmodo quoted the Google rep as saying. “The technology flags images for human review, and is for non-offensive uses only. Military use of machine learning naturally raises valid concerns. We’re actively discussing this important topic internally and with others as we continue to develop policies and safeguards around the development and use of our machine learning technologies.”
The Times pegged the project to cost under $70 million for its first year. In October of last year, the Pentagon said it hoped to expand the scope of Project Maven in Phase 2 of the program, turning the expansive data into “actionable intelligence and decision-quality insights at speed.”
–with files from Rahul Kalvapalle