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Google to drop controversial military AI project



GOOGLE will not seek to extend its contract next year with the US Department of Defence for artificial intelligence used to analyse drone video, squashing a controversial alliance that had raised alarms over the technological build-up between Silicon Valley and the military.

The tech giant will stop working on its piece of the military’s AI project known as Project Maven when its 18-month contract expires in March, a source familiar with Google’s thinking told The Washington Post. Diane Greene, the chief executive of Google’s influential cloud-computing business, told employees of the decision at an internal meeting on Friday first reported by Gizmodo.

Google, which declined to comment, has faced widespread public backlash and employee resignations for helping develop technological tools that could aid in war-fighting. The source said Google would soon release new company principles related to the ethical uses of AI.

The move is a setback for the Pentagon’s push to supercharge the military’s capabilities with powerful AI that could help process battlefield data or pinpoint military targets. Audricia Harris, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said it “would not be appropriate for us to comment on the relationship between a prime and sub-prime contractor holder”. “Partnering with the best universities and commercial companies in the world will help preserve the United States’ critical lead in artificial intelligence,” Harris said.

Project Maven was launched last April as a pathfinder project for ways the military could use AI to update its national-security and defence capabilties “over increasingly capable adversaries and competitors”, a DoD memo stated. In a pilot effort, AI was deployed to analyse hours of footage from Predator drones and other unmanned aircraft, pinpointing buildings and vehicles and processing video now tagged by human analysts.

But the request of private-sector help from companies such as Google, which develops some of the world’s most sophisticated image-recognition software and employs some of the top minds in AI, quickly sparked a firestorm over the potential that the technology could be used to help kill or serve as a stepping stone towards AI-coordinated lethal warfare.

Thousands of Google employees wrote chief executive Sundar Pichai an open letter urging the company to cancel the contract, and many others signed a petition saying the company’s assistance in developing combat-zone technology directly countered the company’s famous “Don’t be evil” motto.

Several Google AI employees had told The Post they believed they wielded a powerful influence over the company’s decision-making: The advanced technology’s top researchers and developers are in heavy demand, and many had organised resistance campaigns or threatened to leave.

Google’s change will likely do little to slow the military’s building march for AI. Google’s contract accounted for only a small part of Project Maven’s technical ambitions, and other companies work on similar image-recognition software that could potentially be deployed as an alternative.

—By arrangement with The Washington Post

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