Google — and the Defense Department’s Disturbing “Maven” A.I. Project Presentation Document

UPDATE (June 1, 2018): Google has reportedly announced that it will not be renewing the military artificial intelligence contract discussed in this post after the contract expires next year, and will shortly be unveiling new ethical guidelines for the use of artificial intelligence systems. Thanks Google for doing the right thing for Google, Googlers, and the community at large.

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A few months ago, in “The Ethics of Google and the Pentagon Drones” – – I discussed some of the complicated nuances that can come into play when firms like Google engage with military contracts that are ostensibly for defensive purposes, but potentially could lead to offensive use of artificial intelligence technologies as well. This is not a simple matter. I was myself involved with Defense Department projects many years ago (including the Internet’s ancestor ARPANET itself), as I explained in that post.

The focal point for concerns inside Google in this regard (triggering significant internal protests and some reported resignations) revolve around the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) “Project Maven” — aimed at using A.I. technology for drone image analysis, among other possibilities.

Now a 27 page DoD presentation document regarding Maven is in circulation, and frankly it is discomforting and disturbing to view. It is officially titled:

“Disruption in UAS: The Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team (Project Maven)”

And it sends a chill down my spine precisely because it seems to treat the topic rather matter-of-factly, almost lightheartedly.

There are photos of happy surfers. The project patch features smiling, waving cartoon robots who would fit right into an old episode of “The Jetsons” — with a Latin slogan that roughly translates to “Our job is to help.” Obviously DoD has learned a lesson from that old NSA mission patch that showed an enormous octopus with its tentacles draped around the Earth.

You can see the entire document here:

I stand by my analysis in my post referenced above regarding the complicated dynamics of such projects and their interplay with technology firms such as Google.

However, after viewing this entire Project Maven document, I have a gut feeling that long-term participation in this project will not turn out well for Google overall.

To be sure, there will likely be financial gains related to resources provided to DoD for this project — but at the cost of how much good will inside the company among employees, and in terms of potentially negative impacts on the firm’s public image overall?

Certainly the argument could be made that it’s better that a firm with an excellent ethical track record like Google participate in such projects, rather than only traditional defense contractors — some of whom have a long history of profiting from wars with little or no regard for ethical considerations.

But over the years I’ve seen good guys get trapped by that kind of logic, and once deeply immersed in the battlefield military-industrial complex it can be difficult to ever extricate yourself, irrespective of good intentions.

Thankfully from my standpoint, this isn’t a decision that I have to make. But while I don’t claim to have a functional crystal ball, I’ve been around long enough that my gut impressions regarding situations like this have a pretty good track record.

I sincerely hope that Google can successfully find its way through this potential minefield. For a great company like Google with so many great employees, it would be a tragedy indeed if issues like those related to Project Maven did serious damage to Google and to relationships with Googlers going forward.