A US Department of Defense partnership has drawn ire from Google’s employees, and thousands have now signed a petition urging CEO Sundar Pichai to shut it down.
Google’s involvement in Project Maven, first reported last month by Gizmodo, was intended to help the Pentagon use artificial intelligence to analyse drone footage. The company—and its current board member and former Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, who also sits on America's Defense Innovation Board—has stressed that its involvement is relegated to non-combat uses. But any level of involvement in military projects has become a cause for concern to many employees, some 3,100 of whom have since signed the petition to Pichai, according to the New York Times.
The petition, which has floated through the company’s internal communications systems for several weeks, does not impugn Google’s intention to avoid combat applications, instead focusing on the possibility of the military’s repurposing of such technology once delivered.
Moreover, Googlers voiced concern that the mere association with military applications could be extremely damaging to the company’s reputation, at a time when the public is increasingly wary of artificial intelligence.
The 3,100 signees include “dozens of senior engineers,” according to the Times, and it represents a minority of Alphabet’s staff of over 70,000.
Read the petition in full below (emphasis theirs):
We believe that Google should not be in the business of war. Therefore we ask that Project Maven be cancelled, and that Google draft, publicise and enforce a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology.
Google is implementing Project Maven, a customised 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.
Recently, Googlers voiced concerns about Maven internally. Diane Greene responded, assuring them that the technology will not “operate or fly drones” and “will not be used to launch weapons.” While this eliminates a narrow set of direct applications, the technology is being built for the military, and once it’s delivered it could easily be used to assist in these tasks.
This plan will irreparably damage Google’s brand and its ability to compete for talent. Amid growing fears of biased and weaponised AI, Google is already struggling to keep the public’s trust. By entering into this contract, Google will join the ranks of companies like Palantir, Raytheon, and General Dynamics. The argument that other firms, like Microsoft and Amazon, are also participating doesn’t make this any less risky for Google. Google’s unique history, its motto Don’t Be Evil, and its direct reach into the lives of billions of users set it apart.
We cannot outsource the moral responsibility of our technologies to third parties. Google’s stated values make this clear: Every one of our users is trusting us. Never jeopardise that. Ever. This contract puts Google’s reputation at risk and stands in direct opposition to our core values. Building this technology to assist the US Government in military surveillance – and potentially lethal outcomes – is not acceptable.
Recognising Google’s moral and ethical responsibility, and the threat to Google’s reputation, we request that you:
1. Cancel this project immediately
2. Draft, publicise, and enforce a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology