Former Top Defense Official: Googlers Face “Moral Hazard” In Canceling USAF Partnership

Former Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work (right) speaks at Defene One's Tech Summit in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, alongside Chris Taylor, Chief Executive Officer, Govini. Staff photo by Gideon Grudo.

Former Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work said he was “alarmed” by Google’s decision to pull out of Project Maven, an effort in tandem with USAF to build machine learning artificial intelligence that would assist human operators identify concerns in captured drone footage.

“Project Maven was a pathfinder,” Work said at Defense One’s Tech Summit in Washington, D.C., Tuesday. “We picked what we considered to be the absolute least objectionable thing.”

Work explained that the majority of captured footage goes unseen, current teams able to view and catalogue about 15 percent of it. Maven would’ve developed a scanning tool that would alert airmen to items requiring further attention. But employees at Google saw it as a step toward assisting the military end lives. The project resulted in an internal petition at Google, where 4,000 employees signed a call for the company to relinquish its involvement.

“We believe that Google should not be in the business of war. Therefore we ask that Project Maven be cancelled,” the letter began, “and that Google draft, publicize, and enforce a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology.”

Work said the same technology that might result in lethal action? might also help.

“They say, ‘Look, this data could potentially, down the line, cause harm to human lives,’” he said, “And I say, ‘Yeah, but it might save 500.’”

The Google petition led its parent company, Alphabet, Inc., to cancel its work on Project Maven in early June.

“Google employees never talked to DOD, as I understand it,” Work said. “Google employees have created an enormous moral hazard for themselves.”