I hadn’t been planning to say much more right now about Google and “Project Maven” — the Defense Department project in which Google will wisely not be renewing participation when the existing contract ends next year (https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/05/31/google-dod-disturbing-maven-ai-document).
But as usual, the Pentagon just doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone, and I am very angry today to see that a Pentagon-affiliated official is attempting to “death shame” Google and its employees regarding their appropriate decision not to renew with Maven.
This particularly upsets me because I’ve been to this rodeo before. Over the years I’ve turned down potential work — that I really could have used! — because of its direct relationship to actual battlefield operations. And in various of those cases, there were attempts made to “death shame” me as well — to tell me that if I refused to participate in those aspects of the military-industrial complex, I would be morally complicit for any potential U.S. forces deaths that might theoretically occur due to lack of my supposed expertise.
This is a technique of the military that is as old as civilization. Various technologists reaching back to the days of Mesopotamia — and likely earlier — have been asked (or been required, often under threat of death) — to provide their services for ongoing military operations.
What makes this so difficult is that typically it’s impossible to clearly separate defensive from offensive projects. As I’ve previously noted, all too often what appears to be defensive work morphs into attack systems, and in the hands of some leaders (especially lying, sociopathic ones) can easily end up extinguishing vast numbers of innocent lives.
This was explicitly acknowledged in the infuriating words earlier today by a former top U.S. Defense Department official — former Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work, who initiated Project Maven:
“I fully agree that it might wind up with us taking a shot, but it could easily save lives. I believe the Google employees created an enormous moral hazard for themselves.”
He also suggested that Google was being hypocritical, because in his view their AI research cooperation with China would benefit China’s military.
His statements are textbook Pentagon doublespeak, and his assertions are not only fundamentally disingenuous, but are blatant attempts at false equivalences.
Particularly galling is his “might wind up with us taking a shot” reference, as if to say that offensive operations were merely a minor footnote in the battle plan. But when you’re dealing with operational battle data, there are no minor footnotes in this context — that data analysis will be used for offensive operations — you can count on it.
To be clear, the righteous defense of the USA is an admirable pursuit. But if one chooses to go all in with the military-industrial complex to that end, it’s at the very least a decision to be made with “eyes wide open” — not with false assumptions that your work will be purely defensive.
And for those of us who refuse to work on military projects that will ultimately be used offensively — keeping in mind the horrific missteps of presidents far less twisted and bizarre than the one currently in the Oval Office — there is absolutely no valid shame associated with that ethical decision.
There’s a critical distinction to be made between basic research and operational battle projects. It’s much the same distinction as my willing work on the DoD ARPANET project decades ago — that led directly to the Internet that you’re using right now — vs. a range of ongoing, specifically battle-oriented projects with which I refused to become associated.
This is also what gives the lie to Robert Work’s attempt to discredit Google’s AI work with China. Open AI research is like Open Source software itself — usable for good or evil, but open to all and light years away from projects primarily with battle intents.
Google and other firms — including their managements and employees — will of course need to find their own paths forward in term of what sorts of work and contracts they are willing to pursue that may involve the Department of Defense or other military-associated organizations. As we’ve seen with ARPANET, some basic research work funded by the military can indeed yield immense positive benefits to the country and the world.
Personally, I find the concept of a dividing line between such basic research — as opposed to clearly battle-oriented projects — to be a useful guide toward determining which sorts of projects meet my own ethical standards — and which ones do not. As the saying goes, your mileage may vary.
But in any case, we should all utterly ignore Robert Work’s repulsive attempt to shame Googlers and Google itself — and relegate his way of thinking to the dustbin of history where it truly belongs.