It’s no secret that significant data proficiency has been the marker of contemporary operations today. From finance to biology, civil engineering to national defense, the demand for up-to-date data has soared. On the battlefield, data collection has undergone a similar revolution. Data sensors and collection capabilities continue to multiply and advance, but in doing so, create an ever-complicated depository of information. Without equally advanced technologies that can parse through the troves of data the Pentagon uses, it isn’t easy to turn all that raw data into usable numbers. The quality of information is certainly as important as quantity. That’s why in 2017 Project Maven was launched.

Project Maven Slogs Through the Data

Part of the Pentagon’s solution to this problem was cooperation with private companies in developing computer algorithms for the war zone under Project Maven. The project included tech giants Google, Microsoft, and Amazon, also known as Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team. Tasked with creating artificial intelligence systems that could recognize specific objects like vehicles and people, the company’s developers provided the DoD with the capabilities such to do its job.

Google’s Employees Push back Against Project Maven

The private involvement was not met without pushback, especially within Google. In an open letter addressed to the CEO, employees protested the company’s involvement with the project. “We believe that Google should not be in the business of war,” the letter stated. Expressing concerns that the company’s work would ultimately result in lethal attacks like drone strikes, over 3,000 Google employees signed a petition asking for the company’s withdrawal.

Google responded with an explicit definition of their contributions. A spokesperson stated the following in 2018:

“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 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 Sets Boundaries for its Pentagon Relationship

The internal pushback ignited a reset of sorts for the Silicon Valley giant. Google went on to withdraw from Project Maven and commit itself not to engage in the process of developing weapons. However, the move did not separate the company from the Pentagon as much as it redefined its purpose. At an artificial intelligence conference last year hosted by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, Google echoed its statements from 2018, publicly citing the company’s eagerness to do more.

“We are a proud American company,” said Kent Walker, Google’s senior vice president for global affairs. “We are committed to the cause of national defense for the United States of America, for our allies, and for peace and safety and security in the world.”

Google Still a Contributor to National Security

Flashing forward to today, Google stands as a source of support for the Pentagon’s use of tech firms for artificial intelligence. While the DoD’s relationship with Silicon Valley remains tricky, Google’s withdrawal from the project signaled that tech companies want more defined roles to feel comfortable with the relationship. To the government’s credit, the tech industry’s questions of ethics were met with cooperation, complete with months of hearings and rewritten contracts.

While the military has its own artificial intelligence projects, it can assure companies like Google that their efforts will not make war machines. Instead, their expertise will be used to algorithmically sort through the large masses of data that the Pentagon collects, effectively speeding up the U.S. defense capabilities. It’s a contribution few are as prepared for as Google, and one that employees can feel satisfied with as well.

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Jack is a finance and economics major at the University of Nebraska and a graduate of Creighton Prep. Husker/Cub guy. Used to throw a decent curveball, but running is his game now.