BAILEY T. STEEN | TUESDAY, JUNE 5, 2018
PROJECT MAVEN, the Pentagon’s classified drone program for artificial intelligence software, caused an internal civil war within Google. In March, exclusive reports from Gizmodo revealed the multi-billion dollar search engine signed a secret government contract with officials from the Department Of Defence (DoD), according to several whistleblowers within the company who shared internal documents with the publication. The leaks, showing the company’s TensorFlow AI systems being used for U.S. foreign policy, caused more than a dozen public resignations and petitions from over 4,000 Google employees calling for a cease to the backroom deal.
“With Project Maven, Google becomes implicated in the questionable practice of targeted killings,” read a letter written by Lilly Irani, a former employee who now works as an assistant professor at the University of California.“These include so-called signature strikes and pattern-of-life strikes that target people based not on known activities but on probabilities drawn from long range surveillance footage.”
Google, in an attempt to save face, have tried to frame their involvement in the controversial drone program as minimal — given countless war reports and internal military documents, better known as The Drone Papers, which revealed over 90 percent of drone-linked fatalities in the Middle East are civilians, not Jihadists.
Diane Greene, Google Cloud CEO, spoke with The New York Times to ease public speculations. She joined two other sources in claiming the contract, said to assist the military in advanced drone spotting for “non-lethal purposes”, was “only for $9 million”, which would be a small drop in Google’s ocean of billion dollar profits.
This isn’t the truth.
According to newly leaked internal emails, obtained by journalist Lee Fang of The Intercept, officials inside the Pentagon were set to subsidise the tech company to the tune of more than $250 million per year, up from the $15M per year they were getting since the project was established July of last year. The publication also learned, through internal sources, that the company was indeed working on lethal technology, preparing the military’s fleet of 1,100 drones for improved spotting during bombing strikes.
Aileen Black, a team member for Google’s rather Orwellian sounding “defence sales team”, wrote an email to the communications team briefly describing future financial plans for the Maven deal:
It’s a “5-month long race among AI heavyweights” in the tech industry, she wrote. “Total deal $25-$30M, $15M to Google over the next 18 months. As the program grows expect spend is budgeted at 250 M per year. This program is directly related to the Sept 13 memo about moving DOD aggressively to the cloud I sent last week.”
Shortly after reports of the contract were circulating around the media, it’s said that more than $100 million in taxpayer money was allocated to fund Project Maven. The official government narrative on the project is still undisclosed and shrouded in secrecy, giving little information for the public to decipher amongst ourselves.
One thing is for certain, however: Google did not want the public poking into their military contracts. A September email between Black, fellow team member Scott Frohman and the head scientist at Google Cloud, Dr. Fei-Fei Li, show executives were deeply concerned about the potential public backlash to Google’s covert contract with the government if details were leaked:
“I don’t know what would happen if the media starts picking up a theme that Google is secretly building AI weapons or AI technologies to enable weapons for the defense industry,” Dr. Li wrote at the time. “This is red meat to the media to find all ways to damage Google. You probably heard Elon Musk and his comment about AI causing WW3.”
This, of course, is the most extreme interpretation of the problems that comes with government-tied search engines. Some of the world’s greatest thinkers from Bill Gates to Elon Musk believe there are dangers with artificial intelligence, however I suggest the concern should focus on the loyalties of Google’s all-powerful elitist intellectuals.
It was only last month that TrigTent report on the power of search engine bias, citing a study from liberal psychologist Dr. Robert Epstein which found online users political beliefs could be altered from 20 to 80 percent based on how positive or negative search results in the suggested searches.
This was the latest investigation into the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME), the behavioural phenomenon that was exploited during the 2016 presidential election by Google in favour of Hillary Clinton, according to a SourceFed investigation into the site’s algorithm results across multiple search engine alternatives and the sites financial ties to the Clinton campaign.
Take the WW3 hyperbole aside, there are legitimate dangers to powerful tech monopolies, central to modern day news gathering, having their own ties to the establishment, whose corporate-big government interests are diametrically apposed to the average taxpayer fitting the bill. Now with Wired reporting Google will terminate the contract in the foreseeable future, why should we disregard their intent to snuggle in bed with the government? How can we trust the company considering the hundreds of millions in tax money they’ve already gotten from the oh-so-generous Pentagon?
It was Black that cautioned executives news of the program would get out under requests made through The Freedom of Information Act, suggesting that if it “will eventually get out… wouldn’t it be best to have it released on our terms?” It’s just not a good look to already start framing conflicts of interests before any questions about such conflicts are even raised, let alone before the scandal is present on Google’s searches.
Thanks for reading!
Bailey T. Steen is a journalist, editor, artist and film critic based in Victoria, Australia, but is also Putin’s Puppet™ on occasion.
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