Google faces mass resignations in protest against military contract

Image credit: reuters

According to reports, approximately a dozen members of staff are resigning from Google in protest at the company’s work on an artificially intelligent military drone for the Pentagon.

This is the only instance of mass resignations in protest at a business decision in the company’s history. An estimated 4,000 further employees – comprising more than five per cent of the workforce – have signed an internal petition urging Google to end its contract with the pilot program, known as the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team, or Project Maven.

“We can no longer ignore our industry’s and our technologies’ harmful biases, large-scale breaches of trust and lack of ethical safeguards,” the internal petition says. “These are life and death stakes.”

The project – which was first revealed earlier this year – is intended to enable the rapid analysis of footage captured by drones using machine learning for object recognition. A computer will be able to search many hours of footage for up to 38 different categories of objects of interest, negating the need for human operators to watch colossal amounts of footage themselves.

Google has defended its decision to work with the Pentagon on the project; as the technology being used in Project Maven is open source, the Pentagon could exploit it regardless of whether or not the company was involved, it says. Google has emphasised that the autonomous system in this case is not being used to kill, but for surveillance.

The dozen employees who took the decision to step down from their roles cited Google’s former corporate code of conduct “don’t be evil” (updated to “do the right thing” in 2015 following its corporate restructuring under Alphabet Inc.). According to these employees, this principle is incompatible with Google’s military contracts and its involvement with political causes, such as its recent sponsorship of the Conservative Political Action Conference in the US.

“I wasn’t happy just voicing my concerns internally,” one recently resigned employee told Gizmodo. “The strongest possible statement I could take against this was to leave.”

According to Gizmodo, employees have also complained of a growing lack of transparency within the organisation, which previously promoted a culture of openness and debate – and a lack of interest from executives about employees’ questions and moral objections.

In an open letter supporting the Google employees who have raised concerns about Project Maven, a group of academics have also called on Google to take a stronger moral stance on some controversial technological advances, such as by backing a treaty banning lethal autonomous weapons.

Academics and industry leaders have previously voiced their concern about the potential threat of lethal autonomous weapons systems which could conceivably identify and fire at targets without human input. According to Human Rights Watch, more than a dozen countries are developing systems with these capabilities, including the US and UK.

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