Google wants to rejoin the Pentagon despite employee concerns

Three years after an employee uprising forced Google to halt 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 the Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability, could cause a stir among its outspoken staff and test management’s determination to resist workers’ 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 can be used to refine the targeting of drone strikes. Google management caved and agreed not to renew the contract once it expired.

The outcry prompted Google to issue guidelines for the ethical use of artificial intelligence, banning the use of its technology for weapons or surveillance, and hastened a shake-up of its cloud computing business. With Google positioning cloud computing as a key part of its future, the bid for the new Pentagon contract could test the limits of those AI principles, setting it apart from other tech giants that routinely seek military and intelligence work.

The military initiative, which aims to modernize the Pentagon’s cloud technology and support the use of artificial intelligence to gain a battlefield advantage, is a replacement for a contract with Microsoft that was canceled this summer amid a lengthy legal battle with Amazon. Google did not compete with Microsoft for that contract after the uproar over Project Maven.

The Pentagon’s reboot of its cloud computing project has given Google a chance to jump back into the bidding, and the company has rushed to prepare a proposal to present to defense officials, according to four known people. with the case and were not authorized to speak publicly . In September, Google’s cloud unit made it a priority and declared a “code yellow” state of emergency, an internal designation of significance that allowed the company to take engineers off other assignments and focus them on the military project. said two of those people.

On Tuesday, Thomas Kurian, the chief executive of the Google cloud unit, met with Charles Q. Brown, Jr., the chief of staff of the Air Force, and other top Pentagon officials to defend the case for his company, two people said. .

Google said in a written statement that it is “determined to serve our public sector customers,” including the Department of Defense, and that it “will evaluate all future bidding opportunities accordingly.”

The contract will replace the now-defunct Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI, the Pentagon cloud computing contract estimated to be worth $10 billion over a 10-year period. The exact size of the new contract is unknown, although it is half term and will be awarded to more than one company, not a single provider like JEDI.

It’s unclear whether the work, which would give the Department of Defense access to Google’s cloud products, would violate Google’s AI principles, though the Department of Defense has said the technology is expected to aid the military in combat. But Pentagon rules about remote access to sensitive or classified data could prevent Google from seeing exactly how its technology is being used.

The Defense Department said it would seek proposals from a limited number of companies that could meet its demands. “As this is an active acquisition, we are unable to provide additional information about this effort,” said Russell Goemaere, a spokesperson for the department.

After a late start selling its cloud computing technology to other organizations, Google is struggling to close the gap with Amazon and Microsoft, which have the two largest cloud computing companies. In order to bring in more major customers, Google hired Mr. Kurian, a longtime executive at software company Oracle, to take over the company in 2018. He has increased Google’s sales force and pushed the company to compete aggressively for new contracts, including military deals.

But Google employees continued to resist any work from the cloud unit. In 2019, they protested 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 extraction.

Google began work on Project Maven in 2017 and was preparing to bid for JEDI. Many Google employees believed that Project Maven represented a potentially lethal use of artificial intelligence, and more than 4,000 employees signed a letter demanding that Google pull out of the project.

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

Several months later, Google said it would not bid for the JEDI contract, although it was unlikely the company had a chance of winning the deal: the Maven experience had soured the relationship between Google and the military, and Google was missing a deal. part of the security certifications required to process classified data.

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

Some Google employees believed the new contract would not violate the principles, said a person familiar with the decision, as the contract would allow for generic use of its cloud technology and artificial intelligence. The principles specifically state that Google will not pursue AI that can be applied in “weapons or weapons 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 war, said that with so much money at stake, it’s no surprise that Google would hesitate to take its bet. doubt.

“It shows the vulnerability of Google’s commitment to staying out of the big merger that’s happening between the DOD and Silicon Valley,” Ms Suchman said.

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

The Department of Defense’s efforts to move to cloud technology have been embroiled in legal battles. The military runs on outdated computer systems and has spent billions of dollars on modernization. It turned to US internet giants in hopes the companies could move the Department of Defense to the cloud quickly and securely.

In 2019, the Department of Defense awarded the JEDI contract to Microsoft. Amazon filed a lawsuit to block the contract, alleging that Microsoft lacked the technical capabilities to meet the needs of the military and that former President Donald J. Trump improperly influenced the decision due to hostility towards Jeff Bezos, the executive chairman of Amazon and the owner of The Washington Na.

In July, the Defense Department announced that it could no longer wait for the legal battle with Amazon to be resolved. It scrapped the JEDI contract and said it would be replaced by the Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability.

The Pentagon also noted that Amazon and Microsoft were the only companies likely to have the technology to meet their needs, but said it would conduct market research before excluding other competitors. The Defense Department said it planned to contact Google, Oracle and IBM.

But Google executives believe they may be in a position to compete for the new contract, and the company expects the Defense Department to tell it in the coming weeks whether it is eligible to make a bid, two said. people familiar with the matter.

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

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