Google wants to work with Pentagon again, despite employee concerns


Three years after an employee revolt forced Google to abandon work on a Pentagon program that used artificial intelligence, the company is aggressively pursuing a major contract to supply its technology to the military.

The company’s plan to land the potentially lucrative contract, known as Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability, could raise fury in its work force and test management’s resolve to resist employee demands.

In 2018, thousands of Google employees signed a letter protesting the company’s involvement in Project Maven, a military program that uses artificial intelligence to interpret video footage and could be used to refine the targeting drone strikes. Google management relented and agreed not to renew the contract once it expired.

The outcry led Google to create guidelines for the ethical use of artificial intelligence, which prohibit the use of its technology for weapons or surveillance, and accelerated the upheaval in its cloud computing business. Now, as Google positions cloud computing as a key part of its future, the bid for the new Pentagon deal could test the limits of these AI principles, which set it apart from other tech giants who regularly research military and intelligence work.

The military initiative, which aims to modernize Pentagon cloud technology and support the use of artificial intelligence to gain an advantage on the battlefield, replaces a contract with Microsoft that was canceled this summer in in the midst of a long legal battle with Amazon. Google did not compete with Microsoft for this contract after the outcry over Project Maven.

The Pentagon’s restart of its cloud computing project gave Google a chance to get back in the bidding, and the company rushed to prepare a proposal to present to defense officials, according to four people close to it. of the file who were not authorized to speak in public. . In September, Google’s cloud unit made it a priority, declaring an emergency “Code Yellow”, an internal designation of importance that allowed the company to remove other assignments from engineers and focus them. on the military project, two of those people said.

On Tuesday, Google’s cloud unit chief executive Thomas Kurian met with Charles Q. Brown, Jr., the Air Force Chief of Staff, and other senior Pentagon officials to defend his company, two people said.

Google, in a written statement, said it was “strongly committed to serving our public sector customers,” including the Defense Ministry, and that it “will assess any future bidding opportunities accordingly.”

The contract replaces the now-discontinued Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI, the Pentagon’s cloud computing contract that was estimated at $ 10 billion over 10 years. The exact size of the new contract is unknown, although it is half the term and will be awarded to more than one company, not just one vendor like JEDI.

It is not clear whether the work, which would allow the Defense Department to access Google’s cloud products, would violate Google’s AI principles, although the Department of Defense has said the technology should support the army in combat. But the Pentagon’s rules for outside access to sensitive or classified data could prevent Google from seeing exactly how its technology is being used.

The Defense Ministry said it would seek proposals from a limited number of companies that could meet its demands. “As this is an active acquisition, we cannot provide any additional information related to this effort,” said Russell Goemaere, spokesperson for the department.

After belatedly starting to sell its cloud computing technology to other organizations, Google has struggled to close the gap with Amazon and Microsoft, which own the two largest cloud computing companies. To attract more big customers, Google hired Mr. Kurian, a longtime executive at software company Oracle, to take over the business in 2018. He bolstered the size of Google’s sales force and pushed the business forward. to compete aggressively for new contracts. , including military agreements.

But Google employees continued to resist some work carried out by the cloud unit. In 2019, they protested against the use of artificial intelligence tools for the oil and gas industry. A year later, the company said it would not build custom AI software for fossil fuel mining.

Google started working on the Maven project in 2017 and prepared to bid for JEDI. Many Google employees believed Project Maven represented a potentially lethal use of artificial intelligence, and more than 4,000 workers signed a letter demanding that Google withdraw from the project.

Soon after, Google announced a set of ethical principles that would govern its use of artificial intelligence. Google would not allow its AI to be used for weaponry or surveillance, said Sundar Pichai, its chief executive, but would continue to accept military contracts for cybersecurity and search and rescue.

Several months later, Google said it would not bid on the JEDI contract, although the company is unlikely to have a chance to close the deal: certifications needed to process classified data.

Google’s cloud business recently did other work with the military. Since last year, Google has signed contracts with the US Air Force for the use of cloud computing for aircraft maintenance and pilot training, as well as a contract with the US Navy for the use of artificial intelligence to detect and predict the maintenance needs of installations and ships.

Some Google employees believed the new contract wouldn’t violate the principles, a person familiar with the ruling said, as the contract would allow generic uses of its cloud technology and artificial intelligence. The principles specifically state that Google will not pursue AI that can be applied to “weapons or those that cause injury”.

Lucy Suchman, a professor of anthropology of science and technology at Lancaster University whose research focuses on the use of technology in wartime, said that with so much money at stake, it doesn’t is no surprise that Google falters on its commitment.

“This demonstrates the fragility of Google’s commitment to stay out of the major merger that is happening between DOD and Silicon Valley,” Ms. Suchman said.

Google’s efforts come as its employees are already pushing the company to cancel a cloud computing contract with the IDF, called Project Nimbus, which provides Google’s services to government entities across Israel. In an open letter published last month by The Guardian, Google employees called on their employer to terminate the contract.

The Department of Defense’s efforts to switch to cloud technology have become mired in legal battles. The military runs on outdated computer systems and has spent billions of dollars on modernization. He turned to America’s internet giants in hopes that businesses could move the Defense Department quickly and securely to the cloud.

In 2019, the Ministry of Defense awarded the JEDI contract to Microsoft. Amazon sued to block the contract, claiming that Microsoft lacked the technical capabilities to meet the needs of the military and that former President Donald J. Trump improperly swayed the decision due to his animosity towards Jeff Bezos, executive chairman of Amazon and owner of The Washington. To post.

In July, the Defense Ministry announced that it could no longer wait for the resolution of the legal dispute with Amazon. He canceled the JEDI contract and said it would be replaced by the Joint Combat Cloud capability.

The Pentagon also noted that Amazon and Microsoft were the only companies that likely had the technology to meet its needs, but said it would conduct market research before ruling out other competitors. The Defense Ministry said it plans to contact Google, Oracle and IBM.

But Google executives believe they have the capacity to compete for the new contract, and the company expects the Defense Department to tell it if it will be qualified to make an offer in the coming weeks, have said two people familiar with the matter.

The Defense Ministry has previously said it hopes to award a contract by April.

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