More than 3,000 Google employees are demanding the company axe its collaboration with the US Department of Defense on a military AI. Dubbed Project Maven, the controversial artificial intelligence surveillance engine uses Google’s machine learning system to spot objects in drone footage.
The existence of the system was revealed in early March this year, with Google grudgingly confirming that the DoD system was indeed using its TensorFlow technology. At the time, the reaction to the news proved divisive, with some employees at Google apparently “outraged” at the project. However, the company insisted that its AI wasn’t being used for combat-related tasks.
“The technology flags images for human review, and is for non-offensive uses only,” a Google spokesperson said at the time in a statement. “Military use of machine learning naturally raises valid concerns. We’re actively discussing this important topic internally and with others as we continue to develop policies and safeguards around the development and use of our machine learning technologies.”
According to an open letter from Google employees, published in the New York Times, however, the disgruntled staff aren’t convinced. The letter suggests that “concerns” were raised internally recently, and that Diane Greene, a member of the Google board of directors, responded. Greene supposedly promised that the technology wouldn’t “operate or fly drones” or “be used to launch weapons.”
“While this eliminates a narrow set of direct applications,” the Google staff counter, “the technology is being built for the military, and once it’s delivered it could easily be used to assist in these tasks. This plan will irreparably damage Google’s brand and its ability to compete for talent.”
Despite Greene’s attempts to calm the situation, nothing short of an outright rejection of military applications will seemingly please the letter’s authors. They’re demanding that Google not only cancel the project, but that it publicly commit to a new policy “that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology.”
According to a Google spokesperson, however, the majority of the 3,000+ signatures on the open letter were made before Greene’s comments. Both Google and the US Pentagon have insisted that Project Maven would not be capable of initiating weapons use without human input. As for the data in question, Google says it’s unclassified and that the DoD was tapping into the same “open-source object recognition software available to any Google Cloud customer.”