A small military contract started an internal war at Google that's tearing the company apart

  • A Google scientist warned in an internal email that the company’s involvement in the US Department of Defence’s Project Maven would be “red meat” for critics.
  • The message, seen by The New York Times, proved prophetic given the huge backlash against Google, both internally and externally, over the Pentagon drone contract.
  • Furious staff members have flooded message boards, attended fractious meetings, created anti-Maven stickers, and resigned in protest. Academics have written to Google asking it to withdraw from the project.
  • Google plans to create a list of principles about its use of artificial intelligence for military means.

A senior Google scientist once warned in an email that winning a military artificial-intelligence contract would spark a controversy beyond the company’s control.

The email was disclosed in a detailed New York Times report charting the backlash against Google, both internally and externally, after the firm won a slice of the US Department of Defence’s Project Maven.

The Pentagon program intends to use artificial intelligence to interpret video images. The Department of Defence said machine learning was critical to “maintain advantages over increasingly capable adversaries and competitors,” but critics say Google’s involvement could help improve the accuracy of drone missile strikes.

Fei-Fei Li, the chief scientist for AI at Google Cloud, issued her warning in an email exchange last September about how to publicize Google’s role in Project Maven.

In the message to Google’s head of defence and intelligence sales, Scott Frohman, she reportedly said: “Avoid at ALL COSTS any mention or implication of AI. Weaponised AI is probably one of the most sensitised topics of AI – if not THE most. This is red meat to the media to find all ways to damage Google.”

In a statement to The Times, Li doubled down on her email. “I believe in human-centered AI to benefit people in positive and benevolent ways,” she said. “It is deeply against my principles to work on any project that I think is to weaponize AI.”

Furious workers flood message boards, create anti-Maven stickers, and resign in protest

Her remarks turned out to be prophetic, with Google’s involvement in Project Maven stoking strong feelings and many pointing to the company’s “don’t be evil” motto.

About 4,000 Google staff members signed a letter to CEO Sundar Pichai urging the company to end the contract with the Department of Defence, while about a dozen employees resigned in protest, according to Gizmodo. More than 200 academics and researchers also demanded that Google pull out of the deal.

Sundar Pichai Google I/O CEOGreg Sandoval/Business InsiderGoogle CEO Sundar Pichai.

The Times reported that Project Maven had “fractured” the workforce, leading to several internal meetings in which staff members around the world had listened to explanations from senior management. Internal message boards have also been flooded with comments about the deal.

One outgoing engineer petitioned to rename a conference room after Clara Immerwahr, a German chemist who killed herself in 1915 after protesting the use of science in warfare. “Do the Right Thing” stickers have also appeared in Google’s New York office, according to The Times.

“Even within this free-expression workplace, longtime employees said, the Maven project has roiled Google beyond anything in recent memory,” The Times said.

Google to come up with military AI ‘principles’

Google declined to comment when contacted by Business Insider.

The Times said Pichai addressed the matter at an all-staff meeting last Thursday, telling employees that the firm intended to come up with a list of principles about its use of artificial intelligence for military means. These will stop the use of AI in weaponry, Google said.

Separately, The Times said, Diane Greene, the CEO of Google Cloud, has reassured the staff that its Project Maven involvement is “not for lethal purposes” and the deal is worth “only” $US9 million.

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