Over 3,000 Google employees have co-signed a letter to CEO Sundar Pichai urging the company to end its collaboration with the US military. The pilot project has been labelled Project Maven and it is in collaboration with the US Defense Department.
Artificial intelligence is the development of computer systems that can perform tasks that can otherwise be performed only through human intelligence. This includes but is not limited to visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages.
Presently, most of the technology focused on Artificial Intelligence is properly known as narrow AI or weak AI. Self-driving cars and Siri are some of the platforms that employ AI (narrow AI). Researchers and experts now believe that humanity is now on the path to creating General Artificial Intelligence (AGI). According to scientists, AGI would be able to outperform humans in nearly every single cognitive task.
Google LLC is an American multinational technology company that was founded in 1998 by Larry Page and Sergey Brin while they were Ph.D. students at Stanford University, in California. Alphabet declared that it made $3.5 billion in net income and saw sales of $26 billion in the second quarter of 2017. One of Google’s main investments is in the field of artificial intelligence. One of the most successful programmes that have been created with regards to AI is Google’s AlphaGo. Go is a strategic board game that is considered even more difficult than Chess.
In March 2018 it was revealed that the U.S. Department of Defense was using advance artificial intelligence technology from Google to analyze drone footage. The US government is using Google’s advanced artificial intelligence technology to carry out its mission.
Google in the past has been cautious to work closely with governments especially with regards to the military. Google’s pilot project with the Defense Department’s Project Maven, clarified this was an effort to identify objects in drone footage. However, the media has reported that employees within the company are deeply divided about Google’s involvement with the US military. Google’s Eric Schmidt summed up the tech industry’s concerns about collaborating with the Pentagon at a talk last fall. “There’s a general concern in the tech community of somehow the military-industrial complex using their stuff to kill people incorrectly,” he said.
Most recently, the New York Times came into possession of a letter written by Google employees urging CEO Sundar Pichai to pull out of the project. "We believe that Google should not be in the business of war," says the letter. "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."
According to media reports, the letter has been circulated within the company for several weeks and has already incurred more than 3,000 signatures from the employees. Google from the very beginning has urged its employees to state their opposition and speak their minds regarding the company’s services and work.
"This plan will irreparably damage Google's brand and its ability to compete for talent. Amid growing fears of biased and weaponized AI, Google is already struggling to keep the public's trust," the letter says. "Google's unique history, its motto Don't Be Evil, and its direct reach into the lives of billions of users set it apart."
In recent months, Google isn’t the only tech giant to be criticized by its own employees. It has been reported that Facebook employees remain deeply divided over the recent controversy that resulted in the breach of personal data of millions of the platform’s users.
Meanwhile, Google has announced that it will be addressing the concerns raised by the letter. "An important part of our culture is having employees who are actively engaged in the work that we do," a Google spokesperson told CNBC Make It. "Any military use of machine learning naturally raises valid concerns. We're actively engaged across the company in a comprehensive discussion of this important topic and also with outside experts, as we continue to develop our policies around the development and use of our machine learning technologies," Google says. The company notes that this project will save lives rather than put them in danger. The statement adds, “Maven is a well publicized DoD project and Google is working on one part of it — specifically scoped to be for non-offensive purposes and using open-source object recognition software available to any Google Cloud customer. The 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.”
Our assessment is that the letter indicates how deeply divided employees especially those within the tech sector remain, about any collaboration with governments or the military. Experts and analysts have long warned about artificial intelligence prevalent in law enforcement and military applications - especially in the application of killer robots. AI is already being deployed in the development of military equipment and this has caused concern in the international community. Governments across the world will also now be wary of Google’s presence in their countries if it expands its collaboration with the US military.
Read more: Google’s antitrust problems