Friday, 01 June 2018 12:23

Pentagon drone project to earn Google big bucks: report Featured

Google will earn up to US$250 million from Project Maven. Google will earn up to US$250 million from Project Maven. Pixabay

Leaked emails from Google show that Project Maven, an artificial intelligence-driven program devised by the Pentagon to improve drone targeting, would have earned the company up to US$250 million a year, much above the US$15 million figure that was initially made public.

The Intercept reported that a month after news of the project became public, the Pentagon had provided another US$100 million towards the program.

Staff at Google have expressed disquiet over the company's involvement in the project. More than 3000 staff signed a letter submitted to senior management to protest against the decision to get involved in Maven.

In May, a dozen workers quit Google, expressing concern over the use of AI in drone warfare and the company's political decisions and the degree to which the trust of users would be eroded by this decision.

The report said that the emails, which were dated in September 2017, obtained showed that Amazon had also been in the running to be part of Project Maven.

Google's management has attempted to play down its role in the project by issuing a statement saying, in part, that it had provided only "“open-source object recognition software available to any Google Cloud customer”.

But Google executives stated in the emails that Project Maven was "directly related" to a major cloud computing contract — known as Joint Enterprise Defence Infrastructure, or JEDI, and worth US$10 billion over a decade — that other companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Oracle are also trying to win.

The Intercept quoted Google spokesperson Jane Hynes as saying the company stood by a statement given to The New York Times in May that “the new artificial intelligence principles under development precluded the use of A.I. in weaponry".

The NYT was also told that the project was only worth US9 million.

The emails were from Scott Frohman and Aileen Black, two members of Google defence sales team, Dr Fei-Fei Li, the head scientist at Google Cloud, and also communications team members.

Black was quoted as saying Maven was “5-month long race among AI heavyweights”. “Total deal $25-$30M, $15M to Google over the next 18 months,” she wrote. “As the program grows expect spend is budgeted at 250 M per year. This program is directly related to the Sept 13 memo about moving DOD aggressively to the cloud I sent last week.”

She also said that the Pentagon was "really fast tracking" Google's security cloud certification which she described as "priceless".

The people on the email chain talked about the public relations impact of Maven. “This is red meat to the media to find all ways to damage Google. You probably heard Elon Musk and his comment about AI causing WW3,” Fei-Fei wrote.

“I don’t know what would happen if the media starts picking up a theme that Google is secretly building AI weapons or AI technologies to enable weapons for the Defence industry,” she continued.

“Google Cloud has been building our theme on Democratising AI in 2017, and Diane and I have been talking about Humanistic AI for enterprise. I’d be super careful to protect these very positive images.”

Sales team members mentioned that Project Maven had been kept quiet by awarding the contract to ECS Federal instead of directly to Google.

“The contract is not direct with Google but through a partner (ECS) and we have terms that prevent press releases from happening without our mutual consent,” wrote Black. The Defence Department “will not say anything about Google without our approval".

No announcement was made about Maven; the news about it broke in March 2018.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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