3 Years After the Maven Uproar, Google Cozies to the Pentagon

Jack Poulson, a former Googler who is now executive director of nonprofit Tech Inquiry, says the air gap and Maven protesters deserve credit for hindering the company’s plans and forcing it to introduce some AI oversight. But he says the broad exceptions built into the AI principles and Google’s permissive interpretation makes them into a shield used to deflect scrutiny rather than a meaningful moral compass. “I think they just want plausible deniability,” Poulson says. He quit Google in late 2018 over a project that would have adapted search technology to comply with Chinese internet censorship.

Alphabet Workers’ Union, which represents a small minority of Google employees, tweeted Monday that although Google’s AI principles say the technology should always be “socially beneficial,” Joint Warfighter Cloud Capability would “modernize the DOD’s tools of war & lead to the extrajudicial killing of people around the globe.”

Google remains far behind Amazon and Microsoft in competing for both commercial cloud computing deals and for government and defense contracts. Both have higher security certifications than Google, allowing them to handle classified information. And both are more openly supportive of working with the US government on national security.

Amazon has deals with many parts of the Pentagon, including one with Special Operations Command using AI to analyze media seized by US troops. Microsoft’s contracts include an Army project equipping soldiers with augmented reality headsets. It drew employee protests but not at the scale of those at Google. A spokesperson for Amazon said the company’s commitment to “ensuring that our warfighters and defense partners have access to the best technology at the best price is stronger than ever.” Microsoft declined to comment; the company says its Office of Responsible AI reviews “sensitive” uses of its technology.

Google’s chance to compete for the sweeping Joint Warfighter Cloud Capability contract came after the Pentagon in July nixed the original version, named JEDI and worth up to $10 billion, which was awarded to Microsoft. Amazon and Oracle had claimed in lawsuits the award process was unfair.

JWCC has a different format that will see work shared among multiple companies. The Pentagon has said Amazon and Microsoft are pre-qualified to bid and that it will consider inviting IBM, Oracle, and Google.

That structure could be good for Google. The company said in late 2018 that it would not bid for JEDI because it might breach its AI principles and—significantly—it lacked security certifications. Kurian said in his blog post Friday that missing certificates had been the “foremost” reason but that Google now had additional certificates. He said JWCC’s format would allow Google to pick contracts within the scope of its AI principles, leaving more fraught work to others.

Jerry McGinn, executive director of the Center for Government Contracting at George Mason University, expects multi-cloud contracts to become common as federal cloud spending grows. That could help Google negotiate the constraints of its AI principles and its lack of certifications.

Modular contracts reduce the risk of legal challenges like that which sunk JEDI and add competition that improves value for the Pentagon, McGinn says.

Bloomberg Government estimated that in 2020 the federal government spent $6.6 billion on cloud contracts, with defense agencies nearly a third of that total, and that cloud spending was increasing around 10 percent a year. In 2019 the Pentagon released an AI strategy that calls for adoption of the technology in every aspect of the US military, underpinned by cloud computing.

What exactly JWCC contractors will be asked to do is not yet known. The program’s name suggests some work could be directly related to armed conflict. The Pentagon’s chief information officer said in July that JWCC would offer better support than JEDI to AI projects—Google’s specialty—including a program developing algorithms to help commanders identify targets. The Pentagon is expected to release the formal request for proposals in coming weeks and aims to award contracts by April 2022.

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Author: showrunner