In a first, Google employees quitting in protest against defence involvement
16 May 2018
If you are lucky enough to work for Google – the $762-billion company that has long been known for its employee-friendly environment – you don’t just up and quit. Right? Not quite. About a dozen Google employees are resigning in protest over the company’s continued involvement with a military programme.
Three months ago, many Google employees - and the public - learned about the company’s decision to provide artificial intelligence to a controversial military pilot programme known as Project Maven, Gizmodo reports.
The search giant entered into a contract with United States Defence Department to provide artificial intelligence to them for the controversial drone programme through which the unmanned flying machine can automatically differentiate between objects and people by analysing its own footage.
Some employees are not at ease with this project. Having ethical concerns over giving so much power to a machine, they are resigning in protest.
The resigning employees’ frustrations range from particular ethical concerns over the use of artificial intelligence in drone warfare to broader worries about Google’s political decisions — and the erosion of user trust that could result from these actions. Many of them have written accounts of their decisions to leave the company, and their stories have been gathered and shared in an internal document, the contents of which multiple sources have described to Gizmodo.
In addition to this, they are also not happy with Google’s lack of transparency regarding such decisions. Apart from the resignations, nearly 4,000 Google employees, in an internal petition, have expressed their opposition to Project Maven and urged the bosses to immediately cancel the contract and form a policy banning the company from taking up military work in future.
The employees who are resigning in protest, several of whom discussed their decision to leave with Gizmodo, say that executives have become less transparent with their workforce about controversial business decisions and seem less interested in listening to workers’ objections than they once did.
Some employees believe humans, not algorithms, should be responsible for this sensitive and potentially lethal work — and that Google shouldn’t be involved in military work at all.
Historically, Google has promoted an open culture that encourages employees to challenge and debate product decisions. But some employees feel that their leadership no longer as attentive to their concerns, leaving them to face the fallout.
“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 employee who resigned said.
“I realized if I can’t recommend people join here, then why am I still here?”
These are the first known mass resignations at Google in protest against one of the company’s business decisions, and they speak of the strongly felt ethical concerns of the employees who are departing.
However, the mounting pressure from employees seems to have done little to sway Google’s decision — the company has defended its work on Maven and is thought to be one of the lead contenders for another major Pentagon cloud computing contract, the Joint Enterprise Defence Infrastructure, better known as JEDI, which is currently up for bids.
Employees’ demands that Google end its Pentagon contract are also complicated by the fact that Google claims it is only providing open-source software to Project Maven, which means the military would be able to still use the technology even if Google didn’t accept payment or offer technical assistance.
Still, the resigning employees believe that Google’s work on Maven is fundamentally at odds with the company’s do-gooder principles. “It’s not like Google, this little machine-learning startup that’s trying to find clients in different industries,” a resigning employee said. “It just seems like it makes sense for Google and Google’s reputation to stay out of that.”
Google has emphasised that its AI is not being used to kill, but the use of artificial intelligence in the Pentagon’s drone programme still raises complex ethical and moral issues for tech workers and for academics who study the field of machine learning.
In addition to the petition circulating inside Google, the Tech Workers Coalition launched a petition in April demanding that Google abandon its work on Maven and that other major tech companies, including IBM and Amazon, refuse to work with the US Defence Department.
“We can no longer ignore our industry’s and our technologies’ harmful biases, large-scale breaches of trust, and lack of ethical safeguards,” the petition reads. “These are life and death stakes.”
More than 90 academics in artificial intelligence, ethics, and computer science released an open letter this week that calls on Google to end its work on Project Maven and to support an international treaty prohibiting autonomous weapons systems. Peter Asaro and Lucy Suchman, two of the authors of the letter, have testified before the United Nations about autonomous weapons; a third author, Lilly Irani, is a professor of science and a former Google employee.
Google’s contributions to Project Maven could accelerate the development of fully autonomous weapons, Suchman told Gizmodo. Although Google is based in the US, it has an obligation to protect its global user base that outweighs its alignment with any single nation’s military, she said.
Executives at Google have made efforts to defend Project Maven to employees. At a meeting shortly after the project became public, Google Cloud CEO Diane Greene spoke in support of Project Maven, multiple sources told Gizmodo. More recently, Greene and other employees have hosted several sessions to debate and discuss the project. These sessions featured speakers who supported and opposed Maven and stressed the difficulty of drafting policy about the ethical use of machine learning, an attendee explained.
There are other reputational concerns factoring into employees’ decisions to leave Google. The company’s recent political fumbles, like its sponsorship of the Conservative Political Action Conference and its struggle to address internal diversity concerns, have also played a role.