A consequence of the technology boom is an improvement in the capability of fighting the nation’s inevitable wars. When man takes a leap forward in what he is able to accomplish with his brain, the military finds a way to exploit it on the battlefield. Sad, but that’s the unhappy way the world works.
There are bad people out there. John F. Kennedy, in a moment of frustration, once asked his secretary of State, Dean Rusk, why there was so much human mischief. “Because at any given moment,” Mr. Rusk replied, “half the people in the world are awake.”
Are there limits to how far man can go in weaponizing the human imagination? History shows there are few limits to human imagination. The United States is party to treaties to prevent the development and use of chemical and biological weapons, but prudence requires weapons research against the probability that such weapons will be needed, usually in unexpected places.
A complaint from several thousand employees of Google to Sundar Pichai, the CEO of the company, persuaded him to order work stopped on the Pentagon’s Project Maven, an attempt to apply algorithms to make warfighting technology more efficient by using artificial intelligence to interpret surveillance collected by drones. The conscious-stricken employees who signed the letter want the company to pledge that neither Google “nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology.”
Google gave in to this dangerously absurd demand. It announced in June that it would not seek to renew the company’s contract with the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Function Team when it expires next year.
Mr. Pichai, who once described artificial intelligence as more important to humanity than fire, told the protesting employees not to worry, he was on top of it. They could count on Google to do things responsibly. “We will continue our work with governments and the military in many other areas. These collaborations are important and we’ll actively look for more ways to augment the critical work of these organizations and keep service members and civilians safe.” (And the money is good.)
New guidelines at Google promise, in a nod to LGBTQ, to avoid thinking about anything that reinforces bias against “gender,” race or sexual orientation.
Google is just one company but the dispute is typical of the difficulties the Defense Department might fail to consider as it works with the private sector to develop the next generation of smart weapons, and a smart defense adequate to protect the United States, even Silicon Valley.
Americans can’t be required to contribute to projects they find morally objectionable; they’re always free to look for employment elsewhere. Recent unrelated court cases underscore this point. It’s easy to see when a wedding cake has been incorrectly baked, but it’s more difficult to figure out how and why a piece of software goes wrong.
This is relevant because the Pentagon is close to awarding a ten-year contract to a single company, worth more than $10 billion, to put all its computer operations on “the cloud.” Critics say the decision has been influenced by cronyism and favoritism, an effort by officials put in place during the Obama administration to retain control of a critical component of America’s defense.
Perhaps, but hard to prove. What isn’t hard to prove is the danger to national security should the brains decide to go “on strike” because they decide, for reasons of personal conscience, that whatever the Pentagon does is immoral. This would leave American troops in the field exposed and endangered, and the nation vulnerable to the evil schemes of those wide-awake bad guys out there.
A project of this size and scope would have built-in redundancies, of course, to prevent failure. But we live in a time when many people think they’re entitled to monitor the morality of others, eager to strike a blow against the corporate and military culture. A rogue programmer or engineer might decide that his higher moral code compels him to refuse to honor a contractural obligation to maintain and improve what he helped build. This would be an invitation to chaos — or worse.
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