US military to tech protestors - 'We’re at war; pick a side'

Jerry Bowles Profile picture for user jbowles December 4, 2018
The revolt by thousands of Google workers against working with the Pentagon is drawing fierce pushback from the military, rival companies like Amazon and Microsoft, and even some fellow workers.

Microsoft has been awarded a $480 million contract to supply prototypes for HoloLens, its augmented reality systems, to the Army for use in training and on combat missions. It's a win that seems likely to further inflame the passions of thousands of tech workers who have taken the position that Big Tech “should not be in the business of war.”

The Microsoft contract, which could eventually lead to the military buying over 100,000 headsets, is intended—according to the Army’s description--to “increase lethality by enhancing the ability to detect, decide and engage before the enemy.” In plainer words, the goal of the program is to create a visor that can produce a Heads Up Display (HUD) that has features that give US soldiers an advantage in deadly combat. That is clearly not a sales pitch designed to appeal to pacifists.

There has been some resistance from Microsoft workers but last month president Brad Smith came down squarely on the side of doing business with the Department of Defense and suggested that Microsoft workers with ethical problems should look for work on other projects. Said Smith:

We want the people of this country and especially the people who serve this country to know that we at Microsoft have their backs. They will have access to the best technology that we create.

Smith added:

Microsoft is going to provide the U.S. military with access to the best technology - all the technology we create. Full stop

Microsoft and Amazon’s AWS are competing fiercely for the Pentagon’s $10 billion Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure cloud contract. Jeff Bezos, an enthusiastic major military booster also blasted Google’s withdrawal from the competition:

One of the jobs of a senior leadership team is to make the right decision even when it is unpopular. If big tech companies are going to turn their back on the DOD, then this country is going to be in trouble.

Military unhappy with Google

At a security forum in Halifax, Canada a few weeks ago, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, took direct aim at “companies” that accept dual-use contracts from China while many of their employees protest working with the U.S. military. His immediate concern is that the country that develops the best artificial intelligence tools over the next few years will dominate the world both commercially and militarily. Said Dunford:

This is not about doing something that’s unethical, illegal or immoral. This is about ensuring that we collectively can defend the values for which we stand. I have a hard time with companies that are working very hard to engage in the market inside China then don’t want to work with the U.S. military. We are the good guys.

While the four-star Marine Corps officer pointedly didn’t mention Google by name, he was obviously referring to the company’s decision to pull out of Project Maven, a Pentagon program to develop artificial intelligence to help analyze data pulled from drones. The move came after thousands of Google employees wrote a letter of protest to management demanding that Google not compete for the contract. Google also withdrew from the competition for the $10 billion Pentagon JEDI cloud contract.

Gen. Dunford expressed his displeasure with Google’s ongoing work with the Chinese government to develop a domestic search engine that restricts searches to government-approved topics. The company is also building a new Google AI China Center in Beijing staffed by hundreds of engineers. Chinese officials have boasted that they plan to be the world leader in artificial intelligence by 2030, an effort underscored by massive investments that cut across civilian and military applications--a deliberate national strategy of “civil-military fusion.”

Pushback within Google

Google’s controversial Project Dragonfly plan to build a censored search product and a censored news app for China has been widely condemned by politicians, free speech advocates and many others, but there appears to be some support within Google from employees who actually favor the strategy. This is surprising. Just this week, a public memo written by current Google staff urged that Dragonfly should be dropped because it “aids the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable.” That letter read in part:

We join with Amnesty International in demanding that Google cancel Dragonfly. We also demand that leadership commit to transparency, clear communication, and real accountability. Google is too powerful not to be held accountable. We deserve to know what we’re building and we deserve a say in these significant decisions.

Another group within Google issued a pro-Dragonfly letter that has been in circulation for a number of weeks has picked up 500 signatures in an effort to stop the project from being dropped. The heart of the argument is:

Dragonfly is well-aligned with Google’s mission. China has the largest number of Internet users of all countries in the world, and yet, most of Google’s services are unavailable in China. This situation heavily contradicts our mission, “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. While there are some prior success, Google should keep the effort in finding out how to bring more of our products and services, including Search, to the Chinese users.

Which, of course, would be funny if it weren’t so delusional.

My take

The Big Tech employee resistance is driven in large part by people who have come into adulthood after the opening of China in the 1970s and the end of the Cold War and the fall of Berlin Wall in the early 1990s. The past three decades have been marked by unprecedented economic cooperation between China and the United States.

With the Soviet Union gone and China adopting a policy of 'keep your heads down and bide your time', Chinese leaders sought to emphasize for a long time that China’s rapid economic development and its accession to “great power” status need not be threatening to either the existing global order or the interests of its Asian neighbors. Over those years of engagement, the U.S. and China became each other’s biggest trading partners. American companies have made major investments in China.

Most of the young tech workers who are striving persuade their companies to avoid “the business side of war” don’t remember the half-century-long Cold War between the U.S. and Russia when every new bomb or rocket from one side demanded a bigger and better bomb or rocket from the other side, not to mention inspired a string of destructive proxy wars around the globe.

Times have changed. The era of engagement is fading and a new superpower rivalry has returned. We are now facing the very real prospect of Cold War 2.0. Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, China has significantly expanded a more assertive set of policies that not only seek to redefine China’s place in the world as a global player, they also have put forward the notion of a “China option” that it claims to be a more efficient developmental model than liberal democracy. The world’s biggest economy faces off with the second-biggest. America First meets the China Option.

At the center of Cold War 2.0 is advamced technology with artificial intelligence being the “nuclear bomb” of the new age. A newly published report from the Hoover Institution titled Chinese Influence & American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance spells out the problem in stark detail:

China is engaged in a multifaceted effort to misappropriate technologies it deems critical to its economic and military success. Beyond economic espionage, theft, and the forced technology transfers that are required of many joint venture partnerships, China also captures much valuable new technology through its investments in US high-tech companies and through its exploitation of the openness of American university labs. This goes well beyond influence-seeking to a deeper and more disabling form of penetration. The economic and strategic losses for the United States are increasingly unsustainable, threatening not only to help China gain global dominance of a number of the leading technologies of the future, but also to undermine America’s commercial and military advantages.

My recommendation for the Big Tech protesters is to grow up and read some history. The biggest tech story of the past year is the one that Bloomberg is standing by and every company involved has denied. Even it isn’t true (and I believe it is) it could happen. That’s close enough for me.

[Updated. An earlier version of this article had Halogens instead of HoloLens as the name of Microsoft's AR system].

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