About Project Maven

Reposting my answer to a question asked on Quora today. 

I need to emphasize, even more than usual:  I'm just a cork bobbing in the ocean.  I've had no input into what's happened at Google around this issue in any way.  If you read this and think, "Oho, now I have insight into what's really going on inside Google," you are sadly mistaken.

To give you an idea of where I stand in these matters, while I work in the Cloud product area, the only contact I've ever had with Diane Greene was that I dreamed once that someone introduced us and within fifteen seconds she'd decided that I was a complete idiot and not worth talking to.  (This prompted a colleague to say, "It's true what they say:  Google's a place where your dreams can come true.")

Do you agree with Google's decision to bow to their workers and pull out of Project Maven, a Pentagon program to harness artificial intelligence to interpret video imagery from drones?

[This question was prompted by an editorial in the Washington Post by Eric A. Theissen.]

Sure. Maven was a really unsound business decision for Google. It might be a sound business decision for a standalone cloud-computing company, but Google is not that company. Google’s an advertising company whose extraordinary revenue is a product of its goodwill with customers around the world. Ethics aside, Maven was a real opportunity for the company to kill the goose that lays its golden eggs.
It’s also the case that a whole lot of engineers, both those who currently work for Google and those who don’t work for Google yet, look at the prospect of their work being used to kill people with distaste. I left the first job I ever had because I wasn’t comfortable with the programs I was writing making it easier to kill people. I’d leave this one too if I had to work on something like Maven. Multiply that by thousands and you start to have a real staffing problem for an organization that’s trying to recruit and retain high-quality engineers. (A nontrivial proportion of new CS graduates don’t want to facilitate killing either.)
Becoming an actual military contractor at the kind of scale that would make this sort of work economically viable (i.e. that would compensate for the loss of revenue that it would cause) would radically change the character of the company, too. In principle, the US military might one day spend as much money on cloud services and AI research as Google presently makes from advertising. But they’ll be spending that kind of money at companies whose operations they can dictate. Companies where the employees have security clearances. Getting to there from where Google is today would be wrenching.
That’s from what I believe is Google’s perspective. (I do not, of course, have any real insight into what the actual decision-making around this issue looked like. I’m several layers of management away from anything like that.)
From my perspective, the US military lost its credibility in the 1960s and has never regained it (nor has it attempted to). Institutionally, it doesn’t tell the truth. And the bases for its falsehoods are not national security interest. They’re career interests for the people who are lying.
So when the US military tells you what it plans to use technology for, or how it plans to deploy it, or what constraints it plans to put on it, you should pay no attention to its statements whatever. One can make persuasive nuanced ethical arguments about supplying technology to the military. But not to the US military. The state of Iraq today reflects our military’s principles, to our shame as a nation.
As I said, that’s from my perspective. From my perspective, I totally agree with the decision. I have no reason to believe that the people who made the actual decision itself share my perspective in any way, even though I’m in agreement with it. It’s a complicated issue with many different forces at work.
I wrote the above before I read Marc A. Theissen’s editorial. Some comments about his argument:
  • “Excuse me? Are they saying that the U.S. military is evil?” Google isn’t. But I’m certainly willing to say that.

    As I said, the state of Iraq speaks for itself. Our military burned a modern nation to the ground. It’s responsible for nearly a million civilian deaths. And it did so in the service of transferring a trillion dollars of public wealth into private hands. It was the military who stood by and watched as a billion dollars in $100 bills got flown on pallets into Baghdad and then just disappeared. It’s the military that still can’t tell us where all of the money went - not just that $1 billion, but the other $600 billion and more that they just somehow can’t account for. It was the military who ran Abu Ghraib, and the military who still runs Guantanamo Bay. The invasion of Iraq makes Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovkia in 1939 look humanitarian.
  • The notion that the US military is all that’s standing between China and Taiwan is risible.
  • What’s wrong with making drone strikes “more accurate?” Well, I'll tell you.

    First off, it’s not at all clear that accurate drone strikes are advancing American interests. It may be psychologically satisfying to be able to kill “bad guys” at a distance, but the purpose of warfare is not to make the military feel better. It’s to achieve geopolitical objectives. We cannot point to any geopolitical objectives that drone warfare has enabled us to accomplish.

    Second off, automating target analysis isn’t in the service of accuracy, it’s in the service of labor efficiency. Making drone strikes “more accurate” makes it easier to make more of them. If you reduce civilian casualties per drone strike by 10% and make it possible to double the number of drones you launch, you’ve killed 180% of the civilians you otherwise would have.
  • “Beijing gets 100 percent acquiescence from Alibaba and other Chinese tech companies in this effort. U.S.-based companies such as Google must decide whose side they’re on.” It is the position of the Chinese state that it owns everything in China. This appears to be what Marc A. Theissen is advocating for America. Keep your eyes on this fundamentally un-American idea, and the people that are advancing it.
  • About JEDI: “If [Google] does not want to be in the ‘business of war,’ perhaps that contract should be off the table as well.” This is not the reductio ad absurdum you think it is. I think that the adoption of Google’s ethical charter removes “perhaps” from that sentence.
  • “Our military strength is the best guarantee of peace.” Hogwash. The interconnectedness of the global economy is the best guarantee of peace for the world. Thousands of miles of open ocean on both coasts is the best guarantee of peace for the United States. Our military strength provides us with the ability to project force into geopolitics. It has nothing to do with “peace.”
  • “Schmidt is a patriot who knows that the men and women of our armed forces are not ‘evil’ and that supporting them does not contradict Google’s core values.” My brief exposure to Eric Schmidt leads me to believe that he’s far too smart for any of the three simple-minded assertions in this sentence to be true.


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