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‘Don’t be evil’ prevails as Google not renewing controversial military AI project

For the past several weeks, Google has been embroiled in a scandal over a Department of Defense contract. Today, Google Cloud head Diane Greene acquiesced to internal pressure and announced that the company will not seek another contract to analyze drone footage.

According to BuzzFeed, the current contracts run until March 2019 and sees Google use machine learning to analyze drone footage and identify objects. Project Maven focuses on computer vision, and specifically has an “immediate focus” on recognizing 38 classes of objects.

This use case is well suited for AI given how humans cannot analyze all the available drone footage, with Google noting that the system sifts through “unclassified data” for later review by humans and that it’s being leveraged for “non-offensive uses only.”

Many Googlers, including the over 4,000 that signed a petition addressed to Sundar Pichai, are uncomfortable with the company’s technology being used for military and possible war purposes. Arguments invoked during internal debate include the long-standing but now curtailed “don’t be evil,” public perception, and inability to get new or retain current talent. Google countered that it was only supplying the DoD with open-source TensorFlow technology that is already freely available.

Regardless, some employees resigned in protest, while there was opposition from the highest echelons of Alphabet. In not renewing the Maven contract, Google is forgoing highly lucrative military spending that is only expected to increase as governments want to take advantage of the latest technology.

Greene told Cloud employees during a weekly hands-on meeting that today’s decision was born out of the backlash. According to Gizmodo, the Cloud CEO also told employees that the contract was made during a period where Google was “aggressively pursuing military work.”

Google is reportedly planning to publish its new ethical guidelines on the use of AI next week. According to details that have emerged, the new rules would “preclude” weapons use and that Sundar Pichai hoped they “stood the test of time.”

It’s also unclear whether this decision and upcoming guidelines will influence Google’s pursuit of other military contacts. The company harbored grand ambitions to become a big player, supplying both AI and cloud services to the military sector to compete with other large tech companies.

The Pentagon is currently soliciting applications for a contract worth $10 billion over the next decade to provide cloud services to support military operations. Google, along with Amazon, Microsoft, and Oracle, are highly interested in winning the bid as of earlier this year.

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Avatar for Abner Li Abner Li

Editor-in-chief. Interested in the minutiae of Google and Alphabet. Tips/talk: