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Who are we kidding? Silicon Valley was built on the business of war

Jerry Bowles Profile picture for user jbowles October 30, 2018
The battle for the conscience of Silicon Valley ignores the industry’s military-industrial past.

Silicon Valley has been wrestling for months with the question of whether technology companies should decline work related to the military and even certain government agencies like ICE whose mission is to remove illegal immigrants from the country.

In April, 4000 Google employees—including many senior engineers— signed an open letter to CEO Sundar Pichai which began:

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

The resistance worked—at least, at Google. The company ended its work on a customized AI surveillance engine called Project Maven and announced it will not compete for a $10 billion-dollar Pentagon cloud computing project called Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, (JEDI), a Department of Defense effort to move massive amounts of data to the cloud.

The decision has been costly. As the late Senator Everett Dirksen once said, “A billion here and a billion there and the first thing you know you’re talking about real money.”

Management at Microsoft and Amazon have experienced similar pressure from employees and corporate activists, but both are pushing back forcefully. Last week Brad Smith, Microsoft president and chief spokesman, issued a statement noting that Microsoft has worked with the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) “on a longstanding and reliable basis for four decades,” and strongly reaffirmed the company’s commitment to continue working with the Pentagon:

All of us who live in this country depend on its strong defense. The people who serve in our military work for an institution with a vital role and critical history. Of course, no institution is perfect or has an unblemished track record, and this has been true of the U.S. military. But one thing is clear. Millions of Americans have served and fought in important and just wars, including helping to free African-Americans who were enslaved until the Civil War and liberate nations that had been subjected to tyranny across Western Europe in World War II. Today the citizens in our military risk their lives not only as the country’s first line of defense, but often as the nation’s first line of assistance around the world in hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and other disasters.

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 acknowledged that some of the company’s workers may have different views and not so subtly suggested that they look elsewhere for a job:

As is always the case, if our employees want to work on a different project or team – for whatever reason – we want them to know we support talent mobility. Given our size and product diversity, we often have open jobs across the company and we want people to look for the work they want to do, including with help from Microsoft’s HR team.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is another strong supporter of working with the Department of Defense:

We are going to continue to support the DOD and I think we should… I like this country. I know everybody is very conflicted about the current politics and so on but, this country is a gem.

As for tech companies refusing to work with the Pentagon, Bezos said:

It doesn't make any sense to me. One of the jobs of the senior leadership team is to make the right decision, even when it's unpopular.

It’s worth noting that AWS is bidding on the $10 billion Pentagon JEDI project and is considered by many to be the odds-on favorite

Rewriting history

What is missing in much of the recent discussion about engaging with the Pentagon is the simple fact that there probably wouldn’t be a Silicon Valley as we know it without government defense contracts.

Fairchild Semiconductor is considered the pioneering start-up of today’s Silicon Valley. It got its first business through military contracts, building chips that helped send American astronauts to the moon, and helped build missiles that armed the US in the Cold War. The Polaris missile was developed by Lockheed Missiles in Sunnyvale in 1956-57. The first initial public offering from Silicon Valley was in 1956 for a company called Varian, that sold microwave tubes for military applications.

Many of the technologies that drive today’s tech industry have their financial roots in government grants that supported early research into complex concepts, or military contracts that provided revenues alongside commercial sales of an early product, such as semiconductors, form the technical foundation of modern electronics from radios to phones to computers. Said Leslie Berlin, historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University.

All modern high tech has the US Department of Defense to thank at its core, because this is where the money came from to be able to develop a lot of what is driving the technology that we’re using today.

Even the networking backbone that supports the modern global internet was first built by researchers funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA provides money from the Department of Defense to develop technologies for military use and is known for its willingness to support high risk, high reward projects that wouldn’t be funded by the commercial sector. Its greatest hits include the internet, GPS, voice recognition, and AI-driven replacement limbs for soldiers and others, and many other dual-use innovations. Said Margaret O’Mara, professor of history at the University of Washington, is the author of a forthcoming book, “The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America:”

Whether their employees realize it or not, today’s tech giants all contain some defense-industry DNA. The result is the conflicted identity we now see in Silicon Valley.

My Take

The anti-weapons development angst among Big Tech workers seems to be driven in large part by fears of advances in artificial intelligence, especially in combination with drones and facial and object recognition engines, which they fear could lead to the autonomous deployment of weapons. Nobody wants to wake up and discover that their computer has launched an attack on Russia. The naysayers appear to sincerely believe that AI is different from previous dual-use technology and that the many things that could go wrong create a true existential crisis.

This is the classic “Would you rather have your adversary inside the tent pissing out or outside the tent pissing in” dilemma. Brad Smith addressed this issue in his statement:

We appreciate the important new ethical and policy issues that artificial intelligence is creating for weapons and warfare. We want to use our knowledge and voice as a corporate citizen to address these in a responsible way through the country’s civic and democratic processes.

There is a subsidiary argument that AI has so much support from commercial interests that Big Tech doesn’t need the massive amounts of money that the Department of Defense can pour into weaponization to succeed. This is not an argument likely to succeed with CEOs and boards of directors.

Bonus points:

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