Ex-Defense Official ‘Alarmed’ About Google Retreat From AI Plan

(Bloomberg) -- A former top U.S. Defense Department official said Tuesday he was "alarmed" by a recent decision by Alphabet Inc.’s Google to withdraw from work on a department initiative applying artificial intelligence tools to analyzing drone footage.

"I fully agree that it might wind up with us taking a shot, but it could easily save lives," said Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work, who started the initiative known as "Project Maven." "I believe the Google employees created an enormous moral hazard for themselves."

More than 4,000 Google employees signed a petition calling for the cancellation of the Project Maven contract, citing Google’s history of avoiding military work and worries about autonomous weapons.

The company has since pledged not to use its AI for weapons, illegal surveillance and technologies that cause "overall harm," while saying it will continue to pursue government work in other areas.

"They say, look this data could potentially, down the line, at some point, cause harm to human life," said Work, who served under President Barack Obama, at a Washington event on tech in the military. "I said, yes but it might save 500 Americans or 500 allies or 500 innocent civilians."

Google didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the official’s remarks.

Work also suggested Google’s efforts in China were at odds with the employees’ stance because of collaboration between Chinese industry and its military sector.

"Anything that’s going on in the AI center in China is going to be the Chinese government and then will ultimately wind up in the hands of the Chinese military," he said. "I didn’t see any Google employee saying, hmm, maybe we shouldn’t do that."

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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