Google To End Pentagon AI Contract, Will Remain A Defense Contractor

After recent backlash from employees and internet users, Google announced that its contract with the Pentagon to develop machine learning (ML) algorithms that can be used to identify drone targets will not be renewed when it expires next year.

Google Becomes A Defense Contractor

Several Google employees, including former CEO and board of directors Chairman Eric Schmidt and Matt Cutts, who used to run Google’s search spam division, have quit Google in the last few years to work for the Pentagon. Meanwhile, the company’s lobbying continues to break new spending records each year.

In March 2016, Eric Schmidt became the head of the Pentagon’s new innovation board, which included  Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos. Schmidt remained board Chairman for Google's parent company Alphabet until the end of last year, when he stepped down from that position. However, he remained on Google’s payroll as a “technical adviser” to the board.

The Pentagon established Project Maven in collaboration with Google in 2017, while Schmidt was working for both the Pentagon and leading Google’s board. Google signed a two-year contract at the time, which is set to expire next year. This officially turned Google into a defense contractor, which is a company that provides products or services to the U.S. military or U.S. intelligence agencies.

According to leaked emails, Fei-Fei Li, Google Cloud’s chief scientist for AI, wrote:

“It’s so exciting that we’re close to getting MAVEN! That would be a great win. I think we should do a good PR on the story of DoD collaborating with GCP from a vanilla cloud technology angle (storage, network, security, etc.), but avoid at ALL COSTS any mention or implication of AI. Google is already battling with privacy issues when it comes to AI and data; I don’t know what would happen if the media starts picking up a theme that Google is secretly building AI weapons or AI technologies to enable weapons for the Defense industry.”

Google Employees Protest Project Maven

Over 4,000 Google employees ended up protesting Google’s involvement with the Pentagon, saying in an open letter that Google should not be in the “business of war.” The employees also warned that this collaboration between Google and the Pentagon will severely taint Google’s image and brand not just with consumers, but also existing or potential new employees. According to a recent report, this prediction seems to have been spot on, because at least some students now reject the idea of working for Google because of its connections to the Pentagon.

The employees also called Google out for failing to keep up with its own slogan: “Don’t be evil.” However, following this letter, Google removed the majority of “Don’t be evil” mentions from its employee code of conduct. Where “Don’t be evil” was once front and center in its work of conduct, it now barely got a “by the way” type of mention in the very last line of the document.

Google has shown that it’s no longer interested in having its employees believe in that mantra. As we can see, that sort of belief is what caused its employees to think that it was a bad idea for the company to be in the “business of war,” as they said.

Google has also made other moves that it may not have done in the past, such as block apps and tools that try to avoid censorship in other countries from using its cloud platform.

Google Reveals “AI Principles”

As a response to the employee protest, Google said that it will no longer renew the Project Maven contract with the Pentagon, and it also announced some AI principles that the company said it will commit to abiding.

Google believes that artificial intelligence (AI) should:

  1. Be socially beneficial
  2. Avoid creating bias
  3. Be tested for safety
  4. Be accountable to people
  5. Incorporate privacy design principles
  6. Uphold high standards for scientific excellence
  7. Be limited to uses in accordance to the above principles

The last one especially should address the fact that the company intends to no longer work on AI projects that could be used for surveillance, cause overall harm, or violate international human rights laws.

It’s interesting that Google mentioned international human rights laws here, because just recently, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur called on technology companies to implement international human rights laws by default into their products and services, instead of their own filtering and censorship rules, or even the censorship rules of certain local governments.

Google Will Pursue Other Military Contracts

Although Google promised to stop working on Project Maven and publicly committed to abiding by the new AI principles, the company still seems interested in remaining a defense contractor and working with the military in “many other areas.”

The Pentagon recently made it clear that it’s looking for a “single” cloud services partner, which could very well end-up being Amazon. Although Amazon’s weak default security configuration played a role in exposing Pentagon’s intelligence operations in the past, the company has already built a seemingly strong relationship with the Department of Defense. Amazon had previously won a $600 million contract to build a data center for the CIA.

Google doesn’t seem to want to give up what could amount to billion dollar contracts for its cloud services, so it will continue to work with the Department of Defense in various areas.

Lucian Armasu
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He covers software news and the issues surrounding privacy and security.
  • hdmark
    i have to wonder if the stanford kids that started that petition are all c students with 0 chance of working for google
  • SacaPuces
    I imagine that a collectivist philosophy is shared by most of the 4000 Google employees who signed the letter stating that Google should not be in the "business of war." It's odd that it doesn't extend to national defense. Someone needs to be in the business of war to protect their lifestyle. Who is it supposed to be and why are they less virtuous?
  • grnhpeacecouncil
    The Pentagon is not in the business of protecting the security of 330 million people. It is in the business of protecting the security of the profits of the oil giants, the revolving door of the weapons manufacturers and the big banks. It, along with the CIA and its ilk, is in the business of taking over whole countries by force, subterfuge and sabotage and relieving the inhabitants of their natural resources and sovereignty. 51 years ago Martin Luther King pronounced the US as the "greatest purveyor of violence" in the world. The 4000 Google employees who signed the letter took a small but brave step in trying to change that. Congratulations to them!
  • SacaPuces
    That being the case, it would be a reasonable argument for their position. The letter made no statement regarding the morality of the US defense establishment, but broadly indicts any military use as not in keeping with Google's values and implicitly less moral. As such,
    it merely comes across as vacuous, moral preening. Hardly brave.