On 4 April the New York Times and then many others reported that thousands of Google employees signed an open letter asking Google to stop working on an Artificial Intelligence project with the US military. The letter, addressed to Google's chief executive Sundar Pichai, sought to cancel any involvement anyone from Google might have with the DoD's "Project Maven" (read the full text here). It said, in part, that "We believe that Google should not be in the business of war." It went on to state that "Therefore we ask that Project Maven be cancelled, and that Google draft, publicize and enforce a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology."
This story and the letter was widely read among the national security and technology community and by those interested citizens who track technology and are concerned with issues of war and peace. No matter what your opinion on this topic, I hope you see this as a good, having more people think through issues of war and peace should be healthy for our future. Every American should be involved in national security, not just those in the DoD or the Intelligence Community, we need more views not less.
I did not see one comment from anyone in the national security community that indicated they were surprised by the fact that some employees of a Silicon Valley corporation would do something like this. But many were disappointed that such a high number would have these views.
The views of the drafter and signers of the letter are clear. But they might be surprised to know there are other views. For many who are tracking the activities of Project Maven or other DoD AI related efforts, this is just a smart use of technology to find ways to save more lives. This includes lives of our military forces, but also the lives of innocents put in harm's way by totalitarians or terrorists. In most cases, these innocents cannot really influence the totalitarians or terrorists that put them in danger in the first place. Why would those who signed the letter not want to use AI to reduce the danger that innocents are in?
Of course those that signed the letter are lovers of peace. So are those at Project Maven. That may be the hard thing for the 3% at Google to understand. Project Maven is good. I have no idea what, if anything, anyone at Google is doing for Project Maven. But if they are supporting it then they are doing good by saving lives.
Others in the national security community questioned the awareness this 3% of Google's workforce might have for how their technologies are being used around the world right now. Maybe it is a sort of myopia, they seem to not realize that Google is in the business of war right now, and that every dictator, totalitarian state, kleptocracy, criminal group and terrorist feel at liberty to leverage Google's many services to their ends at the expense of innocents and our national security. With their dominate place in providing information, Google and other tech giants are also in the business of cyber war, whether they like it or not. Others commented to me that it is very hypocritical for the company to attack the very organization that defends their ability to operate free without fear of hostile foreign power attack.
I also saw many good arguments in the support of the 3% at Google. Many of us, myself included, would like to ensure humanity has better control over the technology we are all creating. It is important that we all think through the rise of AI.
I have to say, although my views are different than the 3% of those at Google, I most strongly appreciate them making the argument and endorse totally that they, and their company, have the right to articulate and publish any opinions they have. This whole episode should remind us all that the beauty of a free country is our ability to express our thoughts and opinions. My hope is that the people who signed the letter are open to other opinions and would reconsider their positions, but I also most strongly encourage everyone I know in the nation security community to read the views of the 3% of Google employees. Their articulation of views like this is an exercise in freedom of speech we should all endorse.
Some other ideas:
- It could be that DoD should engage more with the press and Silicon Valley and the AI research/development community and our citizens on the nature of technology for defense. The more people are informed the better their opinions will be on this.
- It might be that Google's employees, including those that signed the letter, could consider how reducing error in war and improving targeting of weapons can save lives and reduce the danger that innocents are put in.
- Government policy-makers, including the Congress should also think through the nature of AI support to war. There is already a Congressional AI Caucus. Maybe this is a good topic for them to dive into.
- It could also be that all of us should think through the nature of corporate technology support to totalitarian dictatorships and terror groups and criminal elements. There may be more that can be done to mitigate the impacts of bad people from using technology. I know this may sound a bit altruistic or even utopian of me, I know it will be hard to keep bad guys from using advanced tech. But would advocate we think through ways to keep them from having advantage because of it. And would love Silicon Valley to help with that discussion.
- Google, Facebook and other tech giants have been used by totalitarians as a tool in cyber war. Their ability to target ads to specific groups or even individuals makes them a very tempting channel for bad guys to use. This is another area where tech giants should help humanity out. But I'm not sure if it is in their best interest to do so. Maybe this is an area where regulation and more oversight is required.