Google has taken a beating in the press over its work with the Pentagon on a controversial drone image analysis program. On Friday, the company told employees that it will bow to pressure and will not renew the contract for “Project Maven” when it expires next year. Google has consistently sought to downplay the scale of the program, but a combination of negative reporting and employee protests led to the recent decision.
Google’s involvement with the Pentagon program became public knowledge earlier this year. Maven, also known as the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team (AWCFT), kicked off in April 2017 with the aim of building a system based on machine learning that could identify objects in drone surveillance images. Google beat out other large AI firms like Microsoft, Amazon, and IBM to get this contract.
When employees expressed concern over the company’s involvement with Pentagon drone programs, management stressed the small value of the project at just $9 million. Although, the initial contract probably paid closer to $15 million and Maven could eventually be a $250 million project. Google told the Pentagon it could build a system on TensorFlow that would catalog surveillance data, allowing analysts to select a building on a map and get instant access to all relevant surveillance assessments based on computer analysis of drone imagery.
Getting into Maven was not only about this one project. Google’s Cloud business also saw this as a stepping stone to more government projects. Before Maven, Google Cloud lacked federal authorization to store secret data, a certification called FedRAMP. Thanks to its involvement with Maven, Google Cloud was fast-tracked to get certification.
According to internal emails from Google, the company worried how its work on Maven would look to the public. However, management felt they were simply providing the government with expertise to use its open source TensorFlow AI platform. Google’s early work with Maven was highly successful, too. Maven was reportedly able to identify objects in drone photos like vehicles that even experienced human analysts had missed.
Google Cloud CEO Diane Greene told employees during an all-hands meeting that the backlash over Maven was too much to justify the small scale of the contract. The company also plans to unveil a new ethics policy soon that will explain the company’s use of AI. However, don’t expect Google to stop pursuing military contracts — all of its competitors are doing it, and Google is still a business.
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