Despite employee worries, Google wants to work with the Pentagon again | Seattle Times


Three years after an employee revolt forced Google to stop working on a Pentagon program that uses artificial intelligence, the company is aggressively pursuing a major contract to make its technology available to the military.

The company’s plan to secure the potentially lucrative contract known as the Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability could generate a buzz among its dedicated workforce and test management’s determination to withstand employee demands.

In 2018, thousands of Google employees signed a letter protesting the company’s involvement in Project Maven, a military program that uses AI to interpret video images and refine drone attack targeting. Google management gave in and agreed not to renew the contract once it expired.

The outcry led Google to issue guidelines for the ethical use of artificial intelligence banning the use of its technology for weapons or surveillance, and accelerated a transformation of its cloud computing business. Now that Google is positioning cloud computing as an important part of its future, bidding for the new Pentagon contract could test the limits of those AI principles that set it apart from other tech giants who routinely seek military and intelligence work.

The military’s initiative to modernize the Pentagon’s cloud technology and support the use of artificial intelligence to gain an edge on the battlefield replaces a deal with Microsoft that came out this summer amid a protracted legal battle with Amazon dismissed. After the riot over Project Maven, Google did not compete against Microsoft for this contract.

The restart of its cloud computing project by the Pentagon gave Google the opportunity to enter the tender again. In September, Google’s cloud unit made this a priority, declaring the emergency “Code Yellow,” a meaningful internal label that allowed the company to pull engineers off other duties and focus them on the military project, two of them said Persons.

On Tuesday, Google Cloud unit CEO Thomas Kurian met with Air Force chief of staff Gen Charles Q. Brown Jr. and other senior Pentagon officials to argue for his company, two people said.

Google said in a written statement that it is “determined to serve our public sector customers,” including the Department of Defense, and that it “will evaluate all future offerings accordingly.”

The contract replaces the now-abandoned Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI), the Pentagon’s cloud computing contract, valued at 10 billion US dollars over 10 years. The exact size of the new contract is unknown, although it is half the length and will be awarded to more than one company, not a single vendor like JEDI.

It’s unclear whether the work that would give the Department of Defense access to Google’s cloud products would violate Google’s AI principles, even though the Department of Defense has said the technology is designed to aid the military in battle. But the Pentagon’s rules on outside access to sensitive or classified data could prevent Google from seeing exactly how its technology is being used.

Google’s cloud business recently did other work with the military. Since last year, Google signed contracts with the US Air Force for the use of cloud computing for aircraft maintenance and pilot training, as well as a contract with the US Navy for the use of artificial intelligence to identify and predict the maintenance needs of facilities and ships.

Some Google employees believed the new contract would not violate the principles, said a person familiar with the decision, as the contract would allow generic use of its cloud technology and artificial intelligence. The policy specifically states that Google will not track AI that can be used on “weapons or those that cause injury”.

Lucy Suchman, a professor of anthropology of science and technology at Lancaster University whose research focuses on the use of technology in war, said that with so much money at stake, it comes as no surprise that Google is on its Engagement fluctuates.

“It shows the fragility of Google’s commitment to stay away from the great merger between the DOD and Silicon Valley,” said Suchman.

Google’s efforts stem from the fact that its employees are already pushing the company to terminate a cloud computing contract with the Israeli military called Project Nimbus, which provides Google’s services to government agencies across Israel. In an open letter published by The Guardian last month, Google employees asked their employer to terminate the contract.

The Department of Defense’s efforts to move to cloud technology have been embroiled in litigation. The military operate on outdated computer systems and have spent billions of dollars on modernization. It reached out to US internet giants in the hopes that companies could quickly and securely move the Department of Defense to the cloud.

In 2019, the Department of Defense awarded the JEDI contract to Microsoft. Amazon sued to block the contract, claiming Microsoft did not have the technical skills to meet the needs of the military and former President Donald Trump got the decision due to hostility towards Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s executive chair and owner the Washington Post, inappropriately influenced.

In July, the Department of Defense announced that it could no longer wait for the litigation with Amazon to be resolved. It deleted the JEDI contract and said it would be replaced by the Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability. The Ministry of Defense had previously announced that it would place an order by April.

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