Only months after it was disclosed that the Pentagon was using artificial intelligence (AI) to hunt for terrorists, officials have now acknowledged that Google has been collaborating with the Department of Defense to use AI in analyzing drone footage. The disclosure comes amid an uproar among Google employees who aren’t happy to be assisting in the development of military applications.
While Google has had controversial contracts with the government before — most notably with the NSA — this is its “pilot” project with Project Maven, which is itself the Pentagon’s own flagship weaponized AI program. The purpose of Project Maven is to implement Big Data and machine learning into the U.S. military, which officials say is currently in a new AI arms race with China and Russia. According to information from an internal mailing list, Google will now join this arms race and assist the DoD with storing and analyzing the massive troves of data from aerial drones.
When multiple anonymous Google employees expressed outrage over the disclosure, as Gizmodo first reported, a company spokesman issued the following statement:
“We have long worked with government agencies to provide technology solutions. This specific project is a pilot with the Department of Defense, to provide open source TensorFlow APIs that can assist in object recognition on unclassified data,” the spokesperson said. “The technology flags images for human review, and is for non-offensive uses only. 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.”
Google’s military contract with the DoD has thus far shielded its collaboration with Project Maven by housing it in ECS Federal, a North Virginia technology staffing company. Their specific tasks have included gathering data from a fleet of 1,100 drones to help the Pentagon better identify terrorists. Google’s deep learning algorithms can help in object identification, differentiating people from vehicles in order to maximize the effects of military strikes against ISIS.
Flirtations between Silicon Valley and the government have gone on for a while in the age of privatized surveillance during the War on Terror. However, this may be the first time a tech giant like Google, which also wields inordinate control over online information, has been openly integrated into military operations.
As the Intercept noted, former Executive Chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, also chaired the Defense Innovation Board (DIB) and encouraged a collaboration of military agencies and Silicon Valley, calling for “an exchange program and collaboration with industry and academic experts in the field.”
Air Force Lt. Gen. John N.T. “Jack” Shanahan, director for defense intelligence for warfighter support and the Pentagon general running Project Maven’s AI “prototype warfare,” suggested the same at the GEOINT2017 conference. He joked that someone from Google should whisper some trade secrets in his ear.
It appears the two are getting their wish as the United States government officially conscripts Google into their war against the Islamic State.