Project Maven: Business of War between Silicon Valley and Pentagon

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In the recent Defence One Tech Summit, the top officials in the Department of Defence pondered over the use of computer algorithms and artificial intelligence in the combat zone. Project Maven is one of the initiatives started by the DoD in collaboration with commercial contractors. “There is no ‘black box’ that delivers the AI system the government needs, at least not now, Key elements have to be put together and the only way to do that is with commercial partners alongside us,” said the Marine Corps Col. Drew Cukor, chief of the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Function Team.

Project Maven, which is expected to cost about $70 million for its first-year tasks a machine learning algorithm, uses computer vision to identify objects in drone footage. Its initial focus is to identify and classify objects like vehicles etc into 38 classes. This will help to process an enormous amount of drone video footage collected routinely in the war zones like Syria and Iraq. Despite the use of advanced sensor technology to gather precise information during the drone flights, the DoD lagged in creating a tool to analyze and categorize the data. Collaborations with tech giants in the Silicon Valley can fill this gap.

About 4000 Google employees signed a letter protesting the search engine giant’s involvement in a program that uses Artificial for object recognition and could improve the targeting of drone strikes. The use of AI in the military has long been a hot topic of discussion. This letter which was addressed to Sundar Pichai, the company’s CEO was circulated in the internal communication network. It mentioned that Google should not be in the business of war, the project to be canceled, and a policy should be announced stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology. A Google spokesperson told Gizmodo in a statement that it is providing the Defence Department with TensorFlow APIs, which are used in machine learning applications, to help military analysts detect objects in images. Acknowledging the controversial nature of using machine learning for military purposes, the spokesperson said the company is currently working “to develop policies and safeguards” around its use. Apart from Google, Microsoft and Amazon have also partnered with the defence department and won contracts to provide their cloud platform to hold the information classified as secret.

After these employee protests, Google finally announced said that the company will not renew its contract for the next year. This was a temporary relief for the people who have been staging their voices from different platforms against the use of AI in warfare. But this is just a beginning as, According to the Wall Street Journal report,  the Defense Department spent $7.4 billion on artificial intelligence-related areas in 2017. This will open a huge revenue generating opportunity for the silicon valley tech giants. The question is – how long will such internal protests stop these companies from craving for big money contracts.

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