Google employees are reportedly quitting over Pentagon drone partnership


Posts: 2,849   +575
Staff member

As we reported back in March, Google has been working with the United States Department of Defense (DoD) on "Project Maven," a secretive military project involving AI.

Specifically, Google is working on technology that can automatically analyze drone footage using machine learning, though it was never specified what the AI was looking for.

As you might expect, Project Maven has proven to be quite controversial, particularly among Google's own employees. Many of the company's employees were worried about the ethical implications of working alongside a government military organization.

Google attempted to soothe these concerns by claiming their technology strictly "flags images for human review," and would only be used for "non-offensive" purposes. A month later, we reported that over 3,100 employees signed a letter opposing the partnership with the DoD.

That number has now reportedly reached 4,000, according to Gizmodo. Furthermore, roughly a dozen employees have officially left Google due to the company's ongoing work on Project Maven.

"Over the last couple of months, I’ve been less and less impressed with the response and the way people’s concerns are being treated and listened to..."

"Over the last couple of months, I’ve been less and less impressed with the response and the way people’s concerns are being treated and listened to," One of the resigning employees reportedly said.

It's tough to say whether or not these resignations and letter signatures will be enough to convince Google to break off their partnership with the DoD, but the company is certainly aware of their employee's complaints.

A Google spokesperson released the following statement in April:

An important part of our culture is having employees who are actively engaged in the work that we do. We know that there are many open questions involved in the use of new technologies, so these conversations—with employees and outside experts—are hugely important and beneficial.

Maven is a well-publicized DoD project, and Google is working on one part of it—specifically scoped to be for non-offensive purposes and using open-source object-recognition software available to any Google Cloud customer. The models are based on unclassified data only. The technology is used to flag images for human review and is intended to save lives and save people from having to do highly tedious work.

Any military use of machine learning naturally raises valid concerns. We're actively engaged across the company in a comprehensive discussion of this important topic and also with outside experts, as we continue to develop our policies around the development and use of our machine-learning technologies.

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Posts: 46   +19
Is Google an American corporation? Are we talking about American Defense Department; you know the Army, Air Force, Navy, people that protect us. What's the problem here, maybe the Google people want to help the Chinese, or Russian, Iranians, or whoever, but not the American Defense Force? Heaven forbid.
Sounds like a dozen or so Google people are security problems anyway. Fire them all.


Posts: 12,738   +6,106
Is Google an American corporation?
It is not that simple, when Google offers multinational services. Google is based in the US, but their services are not strictly for the US. And Google's employees should not be put in a position, where they must sign non-disclosure agreements for any of the nations they supply services for. And that doesn't even have anything to do with the moral implications of this article, of which I also agree with.


Posts: 951   +1,326
TechSpot Elite
An entire dozen employees quit? That would be impressive if the company was one one-hundredth of their current size. They're situated in the most politically screwed state in the nation, of course a few people are going to quit when they find out their company is working with the big, bad, American military.

Uncle Al

Posts: 8,014   +6,783
People taking their conscious seriously and choosing to opt out. Certainly can't fault them for sticking with their convictions and it's a better option than having them stay and taking actions that caused the project to fail. It does bring about the question, if these people were top performers, why wouldn't Google exchange people and put them in a different role? Maybe they did .....


Posts: 4,571   +3,389
TechSpot Elite
This kind of technology can be repurposed fairly easily. I speculate that this is the reason the employees left and/or signed the petition.


Posts: 1,837   +1,067
This kind of technology can be repurposed fairly easily. I speculate that this is the reason the employees left and/or signed the petition.

That is a big no-no under current defense acquisition contracting rules. If they find an alternative use for it, the contract comes up for re-negotiations - because very rarely is the use identical to the original intent, with original specs, and some new design, testing, validation, and the rest of the production chain comes into play. It also lets the govt. re-compete the contract, and potentially get a cheaper price (the DOD will own the tech since they're paying for the R&D, so they'll get to share it with whomever they want to - whether Google likes it or not)

Sounds like most of these employees don't understand how govt. contracting works: they buy exactly what they ordered; no more, no less. The contract calls for a program to review drone footage, and flag videos for human review, so that is what it is, and nothing more. Yes, the govt. may later want to use the same algorithms to monitor cameras at govt. sites, or even traffic cameras, but in that case, it is a new contract, that lays out the specific requirements, and it goes up for competition.


Companies are in business for the all mighty $dollar$, not to teach, preach or exercise ethics or morality - - which in many ways is unfortunate.

Once I was asked to implement a web users entire session replay offline. It was possible, but as the content being replayed was of unknown security clearance and the user's right to privacy (not being told of the potential of replay) bothered me and I suggested that if implemented, this could result in legal liability to our company. Once my objection was known, the idea was dropped - - and yes I kept my job too (whew).

Not everyone knows that 155 scientists signed a petition to not develop or use their work on the Trinity Project in a weapon. Obviously, that was a futile effort.

Does exercising ones conscience matter? Just ask returning vets with PTSD.

Btw: have a good friend who's grandfather landed on the beaches of Anzo, IT. He frequently had nightmares until the day he died.