Google Won’t Renew Its Drone AI Contract, But It May Still Sign Future Military AI Contracts

The tech giant announced it won't renew the contract after a barrage of internal and external pressure.

A sign of Google is seen at its headquarters in Mountain View, California on April 21, 2018. (Photo by Yichuan Cao/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)
Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., on April 21, 2018. Photo: Yichuan Cao/Sipa USA via AP

Google executives announced to company staff this morning that the tech giant won’t renew its contract to work on Project Maven, the controversial Pentagon program designed to provide the military with artificial intelligence technology used to help drone operators identify images on the battlefield. Google will continue work on the project through March 2019, according to multiple people with knowledge of the announcement, but once the 18-month contract concludes, it will not be renewed.

The company, however, has not committed to forego signing other military contracts dealing with artificial intelligence, according to multiple people with knowledge of the decision. Google declined to comment for this story.

Google has not committed to forego signing other military contracts dealing with artificial intelligence.

The announcement was made by Diane Greene, chief executive of Google’s cloud business, at a Friday morning all-hands briefing for the Google Cloud team, which is known internally as the “weather report.”

Google faced growing pressure since the contract was revealed by Gizmodo and The Intercept in March. Nearly a dozen employees resigned in protest, and several thousand signed an open letter declaring that “Google should not be in the business of war.” More than 700 academics also signed a letter demanding that “Google terminate its contract with the DoD, and that Google and its parent company Alphabet commit not to develop military technologies and not to use the personal data that they collect for military purposes.”

The Defense Department has hoped to harness the latest advancements from Silicon Valley. The Defense Innovation Board, an arm of the Pentagon that makes technological recommendations, declared that winning the global race to adopt artificial intelligence was as important as “nuclear weapons in the 1940s and with precision-guided weapons and stealth technology afterward.”

Project Maven was the military’s first major effort to collaborate with tech firms to deploy AI technology. The program was launched last year. In the bidding process, companies were asked to help devise a machine learning technology that could help drone analysts interpret the vast image data vacuumed up from the military’s fleet of 1,100 drones to better target bombing strikes against the Islamic State.

Google, which has maintained a close relationship with the Defense Innovation Board through former Alphabet Chair Eric Schmidt, who serves on the board, quietly won the contract last September.

The company had sought to conceal the contract through a third-party contractor known as ECS Federal, a company in Virginia. But when news broke, Google began working to calm the nerves of employees and outside critics. Many observers noted that Google had previously disavowed military work and had once embraced the slogan “Don’t Be Evil” as its corporate ethos.

The news of Google’s announcement was first reported by Gizmodo. On Thursday, The Intercept revealed new details about the contract. While Google executives had attempted to downplay the Pentagon program as a mere $9 million contract, the company in fact expected the Project Maven work to balloon into generating $250 million a year.

Top photo: Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., on April 21, 2018.

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