Google will not seek to renew its artificial intelligence contract with the US Department of Defence after it expires next year, Google Cloud CEO Diane Greene told employees last week. But despite the revelation that the contract has an end date, the pushback against it continues – within the company and externally.
Photo: Jeff Chiu (AP)
Under the contract, Google is providing artificial intelligence to the US Defence Department, where it is being used to analyse video footage collected by drones.
The AI pilot program, known as Project Maven, met fierce resistance from Google employees who have argued that the company should not be taking on business that brings it so close to the battlefield. In a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, employees insisted, “Google should not be in the business of war.”
Now, a group of students has pledged to decline job interviews at the search giant until it swears off its controversial military work.
“Our labour, our expertise, and our lives will not be in the service of destruction,” the pledge states. Students who sign it agree to refrain from interviewing at Google “until it fully withdraws from its contract with the Department of Defence (Project Maven) and fully commits not to develop military technologies in the future”.
The pledge takes particular issue with the development of autonomous weapons and asks students not to develop such tools for other tech companies either. The effort is organised by the Stanford Solidarity Network, a social justice group of graduate and undergraduate students on the campus, but the pledge has also been signed by students at other universities.
Niloufar Salehi, a computer science PhD student at Stanford and one of the original signatories of the pledge, told Gizmodo that, as the employee protests against Maven unfolded, she received a few emails from a Google recruiter and was contemplating how to respond. She wanted to raise her concerns about Project Maven, she explained, but didn’t think that bringing them directly to the recruiter would be effective.
“When I started talking to other students, it seemed like this was an action that would be much more effective done collectively, especially since the kind of labour and expertise that Google seeks to hire is in high demand at the moment,” Salehi said.
“So we decided on the student pledge. We were definitely very motivated to support the thousands of Google employees who wrote the petition and the dozen who had resigned in protest. Withholding our labour seemed like a good way to show that support in practice.”
Several of the nearly one hundred students who have signed the pledge have interviewed at Google or previously taken internships at the company, Salehi said. Other students have been supportive of the pledge, but are not comfortable signing it because of their immigration status or non-disclosure agreements they have signed with tech companies, she added.
The student pledge is the latest anti-Maven effort to arise in academia – a group of more than 1000 researchers and professors have signed an open letter to Pichai, Greene and other Google executives, asking the company to terminate its contract with the US Defence Department. Among the signatories of the academics’ letter is Terry Winograd, a Stanford professor who was an adviser to Google co-founder Larry Page during his PhD at the university.
Tech companies often compete fiercely for talent, and students can earn thousands of dollars per month at paid internships. About a dozen Google employees resigned from the company last month in protest against its ongoing involvement in Project Maven, and the student pledge appears to build on that idea of withholding talent.