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Google Staffers Demand End to Work on Pentagon AI project

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Google’s work to help the Pentagon develop an AI system to analyze drone footage has triggered some company employees to protest the project.

The employees have been circulating a letter within the company that demands Google CEO Sundar Pichai pull the plug on the effort. The New York Times reports that the letter has received over 3,100 signatures.

“We believe that Google should not be in the business of war,” the letter reads.

Last month, news emerged that Google had partnered with the Defense Department on Project Maven, an effort to build AI systems that can process and analyze countless hours of video footage taken from aerial drones.

Project Maven intends to tap computer vision technology, which can be used to identify objects and faces in digital images. Google has been among the companies developing the tech for purposes like image search and photo labeling. But clearly, the same technology holds promise for the military too. The first goal of Project Maven is to help the US defeat the terrorist group ISIS by identifying targets in drone footage that human eyes might have missed.

What Google is contributing to project isn’t totally clear. But in an email, the company said its efforts have been scoped to “non-offensive purposes” and involve its open source object recognition technology, which is available to any Google Cloud customer.

The company added: “The (computing) models are based on unclassified data only. The technology is used to flag images for human review and is intended to save lives and save people from having to do highly tedious work.”

But the letter protesting Google’s involvement in Project Maven argues that the Pentagon could one day weaponize the company’s contributions into flying a drone or launching an attack.

“We cannot outsource the moral responsibility of our technologies to third parties,” the letter says.

It also warns that Google’s involvement in military research could tarnish the search giant’s reputation and drive talent away. “The argument that other firms, like Microsoft and Amazon, are also participating doesn’t make this any less risky for Google,” the letter reads. “Google’s unique history, its motto Don’t Be Evil, and its direct reach into the lives of billions of users set it apart.”

Google told PCMag it welcomed the employee discussions about the technologies. “Any military use of machine learning naturally raises valid concerns,” the company said in an email.

But for now, Google hasn’t said whether it’ll cancel its involvement in Project Maven.

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