Project Maven is a Department of Defense (DoD) artificial intelligence (AI) initiative to help drone operators be more precise in their work. Simply stated, the AI would help drones deliver more accurate strikes. Several Google AI researchers threatened to resign if the contract continued, and over 4,000 Google employees signed a petition to express their disagreement with the company’s involvement in the Project Maven work. The initial contract was for $9 million, but Google expected this to scale rapidly. Some argue the contract could have generated $250 million and more a year for Google.
While some may applaud Google’s gain on conscience, others say they lacked backbone. One of the objectives of Project Maven is to better tag buildings to avoid destruction and prevent civilians from being harmed. The AI intent is to save lives and civilian infrastructure during military operations.
While Google will step away from Project Maven, other technology companies will likely fill the void. Amazon has worked with the DoD on similar projects and could replace Google. When the contract was opened initially, Microsoft and IBM competed to do the work. Employees at other technology companies may see the work differently than Google.
- Employee activism is real, starting with a handful of AI researchers and moving to 4,000 employees signing a petition. This represents about 6 percent of Google’s employees.
- Without a union, employees formed a coalition to stop the company from taking an action they disagreed with.
- With the story being picked up by traditional and social media, momentum built quickly with a change in corporate strategy happening within a few weeks.
- AI projects continue to be controversial in how they are applied, whether in potentially eliminating jobs or making the military more precise.
Activators Quest & Actions (Q&A):
- What would you have done differently than the Google leadership in their interactions with their employees? Could you have prevented the showdown?
- As a business leader, would you walk away from $250 million in revenue to take a stand against an initiative that will likely be taken over by a competitor?
Sources: New York Times, Bloomberg, The Intercept, Quartz at Work
Photo by Matthew Kwong on Unsplash
Update: Google’s CEO issued their principles on AI. Read them to understand their shift.