Last year,Google faced internal revolt from many employees over its handling of Project Maven, a secretive contract between the company and the Department of Defense to use artificial intelligence to improve the military’s drone targeting capabilities. After a series of internal, worker-led protests and resignations following reporting by The Intercept and Gizmodo, the company said it would wind down the drone project and promised a more transparent approach to similar work in the future.
Now, a number of Google workers are voicing concerns that the Mountain View, California-based search giant is continuing to deploy cutting-edge AI technology to the Pentagon and law enforcement customers.
Rather than directly engage in controversial contracts, Google is providing financial, technological, and engineering support to a range of startups through Gradient Ventures, a venture capital arm that Google launched in 2017 to nurture companies deploying AI in a range of fields. Google promises interested firms access to its own AI training data and sometimes places Google engineers within the companies as a resource. The firms it supports include companies that provide AI technology to military and law enforcement.
Cogniac, one of the firms in the Gradient Ventures portfolio, is providing image-processing software to the U.S. Army to quickly analyze battlefield drone data and to an Arizona county sheriff’s department to help identify when individuals cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
CAPE Productions, another Gradient Ventures-backed startup, has established itself as a premier AI-powered software solution to provide law enforcement with the ability to fly fleets of drones to conduct aerial surveillance over American cities and respond to crimes and other emergency calls.
Google employees — who spoke anonymously, fearing reprisal — said the work embraced by Gradient Ventures startups appears to circumvent the commitment by their employer to carefully vet and disclose military and law enforcement applications of AI technology.
The startups not only receive financial support from Google. Google employees shared internal company emails with The Intercept that stated that all firms backed by Gradient Ventures “will be able to access vast swaths of training data that Google has accumulated to train their own AI systems” and “will have the opportunity to receive advanced AI trainings from Google.”
Senior computer engineers from Google will rotate into firms backed by Gradient Ventures, the emails noted, to provide “the kind of hand-holding support that we think is helpful in growing an AI ecosystem.”
Google is providing financial, technological, and engineering support to a range of startups through Gradient Ventures, a venture capital arm that Google launched in 2017 to nurture companies deploying AI in a range of fields.
A spokesperson from Google downplayed the investments.
“Gradient Ventures is a venture fund within Google that makes minority investments (between $1-10M) in early-stage AI companies,” the spokesperson wrote. “In some cases, portfolio companies have the opportunity to work with Google employees who advise them on a variety of areas applicable to early startups, from machine learning techniques to website design.”
The spokesperson noted that Gradient Ventures portfolio firms receive routine access to publicly available data tools.
Cogniac, the spokesperson further noted, does not currently have a Google engineer assigned to the firm. The spokesperson further stated that while “we are not involved in the day-to-day operations of portfolio companies,” Google’s Gradient Ventures “adheres to Google’s AI Principles when making investments,” a reference to a statement of ethics released by CEO Sundar Pichai in July of last year.
Earlier this year, while formally announcing the end of Google’s involvement with Project Maven, Kent Walker, Google’s senior vice president for global affairs, had suggested that future military endeavors could still be part of the company’s future. “We continue to explore work across the public sector, including the military, in a wide range of areas, such as cybersecurity, search and rescue, training and health care, in ways consistent with our AI Principles,” Walker wrote.
Cogniac’s work on behalf of the Army was detailed two years ago in a story from UAS Weekly, a trade publication for the drone industry, which noted that the firm had been successfully used in combat exercises to analyze images from small battlefield drones to identify and enemy combatants.
Cogniac is also one of several firms competing to provide a so-called virtual fence at the border to identify and apprehend individuals. The company has reportedly participated in trials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to test its ability to detect individuals engaged in unauthorized border crossing.
Cogniac is also one of several firms competing to provide a so-called virtual fence at the border to identify and apprehend individuals.
Arizona’s Cochise County Sheriff’s Office has also contracted with Cogniac to analyze footage from a number of surveillance cameras focused on activity along the border. “Cogniac demonstrated the ability to train the system recognize threats and filter out false alarms to the level acceptable to the Department,” the county reported on its website explaining the contract.
CAPE similarly provides AI-powered software to analyze drone images. The California town of Chula Vista has used the company’s “Aerial Telepresence” platform to help the local police department respond to 911 calls. According to CAPE, the pilot drone program, using CAPE’s software, has helped lead to 21 arrests.
“Gradient Ventures is an investor in Cogniac. I can’t comment any other aspect or terms of their investment,” Bill Kish, CEO of Cogniac, wrote in an email. CAPE Productions did not respond to a request for comment.
CAPE was co-founded by Thomas Finsterbusch, a former software engineer for the Google research lab known as X, which researches breakthrough technologies. Finsterbusch is now a partner at Gradient Ventures. The venture capital firm’s entire advisory board is comprised of various Google executives and heads of Google subsidiaries.
The investment arm, however, provides at least the appearance of distance while leaving a pathway for the company to continue exploring military and national security uses for machine learning technology.