Google headquarters in London

Google announces end to controversial military AI project

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Following vehement opposition from its own employees, the search giant has confirmed that it will not be renewing a contract with the Pentagon to use its machine-learning tools to analyse footage from military drones.

Google will now not be renewing its contract with the Pentagon, which is due to expire in March 2019.

The project is known as the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team, nicknamed ‘Project Maven’. It involves the rapid identification and classification of up to 38 different categories of objects appearing in footage captured by drones, using Google’s cloud computing and data-analysis tools. This could negate the need for human workers to manually search through hours of unremarkable footage.

Internal conflict followed the news of the contract, with more than 4,600 Google employees signing an internal petition calling on Google to end its involvement with Project Maven. Over 700 employees also formed an online group (“Maven Conscientious Objectors”) to discuss their concerns and what action they could take to put pressure on Google to leave the project. Further, more than a dozen employees have resigned in protest.

Employees have mentioned the potential risk associated with using these technologies in what would be lethal military situations and cited the company’s principle of doing no harm (changed from “Don’t be evil” following a 2017 corporate restructuring).

“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 stated. “These are life and death stakes.”

Gizmodo – which broke the news of Google’s decision not to renew its Pentagon contract – reported that Diane Greene, chief executive for Google Cloud, informed employees of the news at a meeting at the end of the week.

Greene said that the controversy surrounding Project Maven – which was taken on during a period in which Google was actively seeking military contracts – had been “terrible” for the company. According to Gizmodo, internal documents suggested that Project Maven had been seen by Google executives as an opportunity to win further military contracts in the future.

Gizmodo reported that Google had planned to build a sophisticated real-time surveillance system which would allow Pentagon employees to “click on a building and see everything associated with it”. By December 2017, Google was able to classify objects in images with high accuracy for Project Maven.

Google has stated that the technologies it has been using on Project Maven are entirely for non-offensive tasks and could help protect lives through surveillance. Google stated that its tools were open source and could be exploited regardless of Google’s involvement and that Project Maven was of relatively little financial worth to Google - approximately $9m (£6.7m).

Google has formed a small task force working on a set of corporate guidelines for future military work, which will be released soon.

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