Google's culture clashes with Project Maven work

Thousands of employees are asking Google to pull out of Project Maven, an initiative to improve how artificial intelligence is used on the battlefield.

A lot has been made about the cultural differences between the government market and the private sector but generally it manifests itself in terms of business models, sales cycles and rules and regulations.

But the New York Times is reporting on a mutiny going on at Google where thousands of employees are asking the company’s CEO to pull out of a Defense Department initiative known as Project Maven.

Project Maven is about developing and deploying artificial intelligence-based algorithms against some of DOD’s toughest challenges. And few companies are as good at algorithms as Google.

DOD wants to integrate bid data, artificial intelligence and machine learning into more programs. The Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental, the DOD Strategic Capabilities Office and the Army Research Lab sponsored an industry day in October that drew over 100 companies. DOD wants the private sector, academia and the national labs to participate in the effort.

The Google employees are objecting to the company working on a project that will improve the effectiveness of warfare such as improving the targeting of drone strikes, according to the Times.

The letter, which the Times posted in whole, asks that CEO Sundar Pichai, cancel the company’s involvement in Project Maven.

“We believe that Google should not be in the business of war,” the letter states in its opening.

Company leaders explained that the portion of work Google is involved in is not used to operate drones or launch weapons, but according to the letter that did little to appease those who are objecting.

“Google will join the ranks of companies like Palantir, Raytheon, and General Dynamics,” the letter states. “The argument that other firms, like Microsoft and Amazon, are also participating doesn’t make this any less risky for Google. Google’s unique history, its motto Don’t Be Evil, and its direct reach into the lives of billions of users set it apart.”

They urge Pichai to create a policy that “Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology.”

In the Times article, Google officials say that the letter and most of the signatures were collected before the company could brief employees about the project.

In a statement released Tuesday, the company emphasized that its involvement is for “non-offensive.” Google is a subcontractor to ECS Federal.

It’s doubtful that Google will pull out of the project but it makes me think this is some growing pain for the Silicon Valley portion of the tech industry.

Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence can increase the lethality of weapons but they also can save lives on the battlefield.

One of the arguments in the Google employee letter is that the company’s brand will be damaged and it will be hard to recruit the kind of talent they want.

Those are legitimate points because I’m sure most of the people who have gone to work for Google never saw themselves joining the defense industry.

The idealism at Google has fueled much of its success. Can they keep that idealism and be a defense contractor at the same time?

There was a time when many in the commercial tech world ignored the federal government and the defense industry but as the technology they have evangelized in the commercial world moves full steam into the government, there’s bound to be more of these internal clashes.