Is Jeff Bezos upset with the U.S Department of Defense’s decision to award a lucrative $10 billion contract not to Amazon but to Microsoft instead? You bet. But he still firmly believes that U.S. tech companies must work with the Pentagon.
Addressing the annual Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California, Bezos said, “If big tech is going to turn their backs on the Department of Defense, this country is in trouble.”
Bezos’ comment calls to mind the controversy surrounding the DoD’s contract with Google (dubbed Project Maven) to analyze drone videos using AI. Following Google’s announcement of the partnership with the DoD, in March 2018, more than 3,000 of Google employees signed a letter to Sundar Pichai, the company’s CEO, demanding that Google pull out of Project Maven.
“We believe that Google should not be in the business of war,” said the letter. Google decided to not renew the contract upon its expiry in March 2019.
I do admire Google employee’s willingness to speak their minds on this and other controversial topics. I certainly respect their stand specifically on Project Maven. And yet, to fully understand their position with regards to the “business of war,” I’d love to ask them a few questions.
Do the Google employees who signed the Project Maven letter believe that their colleagues in China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea will reciprocate and abandon working on the military applications of AI? Do the Googlers think that the United States should develop proper defense from AI-driven attacks launched by its enemies? If the answer to the prior question is yes, then who, in the Googlers’ opinion, should be conducting research aimed at this goal? And why specifically Google should be excluded from this research?
A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank specializing in U.S. foreign policy and international affairs, highlighted the crucial role innovation plays for the American national security (I wrote about it here). The report specifically mentioned China as a formidable strategic competitor challenging the U.S. leadership in the area of AI and data science.
The just-released Global AI Index confirms the warning issued by the CFR report. While the United States still leads the pack of 54 countries included in the Index, China comes a close second. Characteristically, China scores #1 rank in the sub-section “Government Strategy” that focuses on the depth of commitment from national governments to AI (in terms of strategy and spending). The United States scores only #13 in this specific category.
The United States urgently needs a strategy guiding the AI-related R&D efforts, including in the area of national security and defense. Part of this strategy should identify appropriate entities charged with leading the R&D efforts. And if it’s not Google, then who?