Google Employees Denounce Firm’s Military Drone Work In Letter To CEO

Dr. Will Roper, Director of the Strategic Capabilities Office under the Office of the Secretary of Defense, explains U.S. military’s use of the Micro UAV – Unmanned Aerial Vehicle –  at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency building on Friday, March 4, 2016, in Arlington, VA. (Credit: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

In response to Google’s involvement in beefing up image recognition for drones, a growing number of employees say its time for the multifaceted tech giant to draw the line.

Thousands of Google employees have reportedly signed a letter to CEO Sundar Pichai denouncing the company’s work on military image-recognition capabilities, according to a New York Times report. Addressed to Pichai, the letter discusses Google’s role in developing military drone software as part of “Project Maven,” and argues that the tech company should not be in “the business of war.”

As Ars Technica explained last month, “Project Maven” has involved using Google’s image recognition technology to analyze and sort through millions of hours of video footage collected by drones so as to improve military ability for identifying people and other noteworthy subjects on the ground.

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The Times reported that over 3,000 Google employees had added their names to the document as of last week. From its opening paragraph, the letter establishes employees’ opposition to the project and to Google’s involvement in wartime pursuits overall.

“We believe that Google should not be in the business of war,” it reads. “Therefore we ask that Project Maven be cancelled and that Google draft, publicize, and enforce a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology.”

Footage captured by a Turkish unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, on March 5, 2018 shows civilians fleeing into a field after their van is disabled by an explosion near the Qurayriyah village of Afrin, Syria. (Credit: AA Video/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

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The letter also rejects Google’s stance that the project was “specifically scoped to be for non-offensive purposes,” arguing that developing the image-recognition software for the military, which could then go on to use it for various surveillance purposes, is “not acceptable” and could potentially have “lethal outcomes.” 

In response to the letter, a Google spokesperson provided the following statement to outlets:

An important part of our culture is having employees who are actively engaged in the work that we do. We know that there are many open questions involved in the use of new technologies, so these conversations—with employees and outside experts—are hugely important and beneficial.

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.

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.

As the Times and Ars Technica pointed out, Google isn’t the only Silicon Valley firm getting its boots wet in the military’s tech pool.

Whether or not Amazon and Microsoft employees will show misgivings about their companies’ defense-geared projects in development, however, remains to be seen.

Google X’s Project Wing Lead Dave Vos speaks during a news conference discussing the unmanned aircraft registration at CES 2016 at the Las Vegas Convention Center on January 6, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Credit: David Becker/Getty Images)

[h/t Ars Technica]

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