Last month, Google announced that it had withdrawn from Maven, a Defense Department project to use artificial intelligence to analyze drone video. The Mountain View-based company faced an insurrection of sorts, with thousands of its employees petitioning their CEO to cease work on a technology that might one day be weaponized. In the interests of talent retention, the company higher-ups relented.
There is some irony in all of this considering Google’s renowned friendliness with the National Security Agency, and of course, the military origins of the Internet itself. It reflects also a naivety by some of Silicon Valley’s footprint in Washington D.C. Despite its public image as a sandals-and-tie-dye counter-cultural epicenter that is somehow removed from the nastiness of war and espionage, the tech industry is as firmly planted in D.C. as the Washington Monument. And that’s a good thing! Not war, of course, but a close relationship between government and the computing industry. They need each other, and always will.
FOOTING THE BILL
Advanced technology and government have always been intimate. Indeed, from aerospace to cyberspace it’s hard to think of a sector untouched by the U.S. government in general and the Department of Defense in particular. The Wright Flyer first flew in 1903. Less than five years later, the Wright Brothers signed a deal with the U.S. Army. Before that, it was the telegraph that helped the Union win the Civil War (and was where the government first learned to wiretap). The initial development and basic physical infrastructure of the Internet was funded by Defense-appropriated tax dollars. And these relationships were mutually beneficial and continue to pay dividends. See, for example, NASA’s recent announcement of silent, supersonic aircraft technology.
The government pays for fundamental research. That’s what the National Science Foundation is for; it pumps billions of dollars into the scientific community by way of grants. Today that might mean funding quantum computing research—a technology in its infancy and with little money to be made, relatively speaking, in the near term. “Let the private sector fund the research” won’t get you far: If you are Google, for example, you want the best bang for your buck—which means lots of simple Linux boxes running as a cluster. And as industry advances technologies most beneficial to itself, government can nurture something like quantum along until that technology is ready for its own moment in the sun.
If computer science is too abstruse (clusters? quantum?), look at space exploration. NASA launches something like the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter—a moon satellite that produces extraordinarily detailed lunar maps—and there’s not much money in that for anyone. Yet. In the next few decades, the private sector will be able to use that data to mine the moon for water and materials. And there will be a lot of money in that. The same holds true for Mars: NASA does the initial reconnaissance with rovers and orbiters (and maybe astronauts), and later, the first company to use that data and build a Martian diamond mine will a nice profit. (Oh yes: there are diamonds on Mars just like on Earth.)
Technology investments by the federal government keep the soil fertile. They keep researchers employed, they keep new ideas in circulation (some of which, like Siri—a Defense Department technology—go on to shake up industries), and perhaps most importantly, keep U.S. researchers in the U.S. (See the 1950s “brain drain” in the United Kingdom: researchers will always go where the money is.) The government later reaps the benefits of these investments through private sector advancements and through taxes on the profits that result.
CLOSE TO HOME
There are a couple of reasons why a tech giant would want a nice office space in the Washington metropolitan area. The talent, for one. There is a lot of brain power in the nation’s capital in part because of the defense and aerospace industries, which were cultivating tech talent pools before Steve Jobs or Bill Gates were even born. (In fact, the highest concentration of computer scientists in the United States is in Maryland.) A happy side effect of leveraging this talent are the contacts every employee brings, and the hometown leg-up on competitors who might also want that big cloud contract or, yes, that drone imagery AI tool.
And proximity is power. A forward thinking company is going to want to be close to lawmakers who could negatively disrupt their industry with the stroke of a pen. The average age for a U.S. senator is 61. The same demographic who calls it “the Facebook” and sends their bank info to Nigerian princes is the one who writes the laws governing the information industry. And it goes both ways. A company navigating perilous waters and upending entire industries—think what Uber did to taxis, Airbnb to hotels, and what self-driving cars will soon do to long-haul trucking—would be smart to get a few former lawmakers and political advisers on its board. You might be able to build a car that navigates Los Angeles traffic, but do you know how to navigate Washington’s corridors of power? The proximity to both talent and power is just one reason why Northern Virginia made the short list in a coveted grab for the next Amazon headquarters. And it’s why Apple is looking to Arlington, Va. as the potential location for a 20,000 person campus.
As to working with the Defense Department, it’s understandable why someone would want to avoid building weapons of war. But those weapons will be built. The question worth asking is who can build the safest variants of them: the ones that spot civilians and noncombatants. It’s a morally gray area, but worth consideration beyond righteous dismissal.