Techies who’ve come of age in a country perpetually at war are saying they don’t want their talents used to kill people.
You take your signs of hope where you can get them, especially these days. Sometimes you find one in a mega-corporation’s suggestion box.
The New York Times reported recently on a remarkable letter circulating internally at Google. Signed by 3,000 Google employees, it protests the company’s use of its artificial intelligence expertise in a Pentagon contract. “We believe that Google should not be in the business of war,” it says.
The letter demands that the company, whose famous internal motto is “don’t be evil,” commit not to “ever build warfare technology.”
There’s a piece of advice that would’ve been appreciated by the late Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated 50 years ago this month. Commemorations of the slain civil rights leader marking have often noted his courageous addition of militarism to his fights against racism and poverty during his last years.
Anti-militarism was controversial back then — King’s opposition to Vietnam lost him many friends — and certainly isn’t fashionable now.
For instance, most Democrats joined Republicans this February in passing a budget deal that will send U.S. military spending close to its highest level since World War II. That spending is already greater than the next eight countries’ military budgets put together. In fact, the Pentagon increase in this deal alone will be larger than the Russian military’s total.
All this money is inspiring the Trump administration to think up new uses for the military, like parading it down Pennsylvania Avenue, and sending it to the Mexican border.
So the letter from the Google workers took me by surprise, especially coming from a generation that’s come of age in a country perpetually at war.
They’re not seduced by all the bells and whistles designed to make American militarism the warm bath we all swim in — everything from the military contracting ads that blanket Sunday morning talk shows to the jet plane flyovers during football games. (No wonder some people confused players kneeling during football games as an attack on the military.)
For tech workers, a love of technological advance is pretty much a prerequisite of the job. Yet in the Google letter, these workers are drawing a line in the sand about tasks to which they don’t want their technological brilliance applied. In “Project Maven,” the company is developing artificial intelligence software for the Pentagon that employees worry will be used in drone strike targeting.
Their bosses assure them that their talents won’t be used to create “autonomous weapons” — the ones allowing machines, rather than humans, to make the decisions to kill. But the Times reports that neither the company nor the Pentagon has made its contract public, and the technology could easily be used “to pick out human targets for strikes.”
Employees see those assurances as a slippery slope. They framed the company’s entry into Pentagon contracting as a potential blow to sales and recruitment. “Amid growing fears of biased and weaponized AI,” they said, “Google is already struggling to keep the public’s trust.”
Much of the tech world — including Amazon and Microsoft, which have military contracts of their own — is clamoring to join this brave new world. Google’s former chairman Eric Schmidt has himself joined a Pentagon advisory board (to keep lines of communication open, he says). But even Schmidt acknowledges a broad worry in the tech world about “the military industrial complex using their stuff to kill people incorrectly.”
With their letter, this group of Google techies believes that much of the broader public — and the next cohort of wunderkinds the company wants to hire — would rather it stayed out of the business, too. A February Gallup poll, testing reactions to the budget deal, provides some support for this view. Only 33 percent of its respondents thought the military needed a funding boost. (About half of all base Pentagon funding, it should be said, goes to contracting corporations — from weapons builders to tech companies.)
Still, anti-militarism isn’t something we’re used to associating with Silicon Valley. This month, 50 years after Martin Luther King’s assassination, a coalition of faith leaders, social justice organizations, and citizens working across race and class lines is launching a new version of the late leader’s anti-racism, anti-poverty and anti-militarist Poor People’s Campaign.
Could it find ways to link up with the idealism brewing in the tech world? That would really be something.