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 sky rift and Maven protesters deserve credit for obstructing the company’s plans and forcing it to introduce some AI surveillance. But he says the broad exceptions built into AI principles and Google’s permissive interpretation make them a shield used to fend off control rather than a meaningful moral compass. “I think they just want plausible denial,” Poulson says. He left Google in late 2018 over a project that allegedly modified search technology to comply with Chinese internet censorship.

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

Google is lagging far behind Amazon and Microsoft in competition for both commercial cloud computing deals and government and defense contracts. Both have higher security certifications than Google, which allows them to handle confidential information. And both are more openly in favor of collaborating with the US government on national security.

Amazon has deals with many parts of the Pentagon, including one with Special Operations Command that uses AI to analyze media seized by US forces. Microsoft’s contracts include an army project that will equip soldiers with augmented reality headsets. It drew protests from employees, but not on the scale of Google’s. An Amazon spokesperson said the company’s commitment to “ensuring our war fighters 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 assesses the “sensitive” use of its technology.

Google’s chance to compete for the sweeping Joint Warfighter Cloud Capability contract came after the Pentagon removed the $10 billion original version, called JEDI, awarded to Microsoft in July. Amazon and Oracle had argued in lawsuits that the award process was unfair.

JWCC has a different format in which work is shared between multiple companies. The Pentagon has said Amazon and Microsoft are pre-qualified to bid and 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 could violate AI principles and — significantly — lacked security certifications. Kurian said in his blog post Friday that missing certificates were the “main” reason, but Google now had additional certificates. He said JWCC’s format would allow Google to choose 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 commonplace as federal cloud spending increases. That could help Google negotiate the limitations of its AI principles and lack of certifications.

Modular contracts reduce the risk of legal challenges like those that scuttled JEDI and add competition that improves value to the Pentagon, McGinn says.

The Bloomberg government estimates that in 2020 the federal government spent $6.6 billion on cloud contracts, with defense services nearly a third of that total, and that cloud spending was increasing at about 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, supported by cloud computing.

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

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