The Ethics of Google and the Pentagon Drones
Many years ago, I was the system guy who ran the early UNIX
minicomputers in the basement of Santa Monica's RAND Corporation.
While RAND at the time derived the vast majority of its income from
Department of Defense contracts, I was there despite my lifelong
refusal to work directly on military-related projects (to the
significant detriment of my own income, I might add). RAND spoke truth
to power. DoD could contract with RAND for a report on some given
topic, but RAND wouldn't skew a report to reach results that the
contractor had hoped for. I admired that.
One midday I was eating lunch in an open patio between the offices
there, chatting with a couple of the military research guys. At the
time, one focus of DoD interest was use of mainframe and minicomputer
systems to analyze battlefield data, such as it was back then. My
lunchmates assured me that their work was all defensive in nature.
I asked how they could be sure that the same analytical systems they
intended for defense couldn't also by used by the military for
actually killing people. "We have to trust them," came the reply. "The
technology is inherently dual use."
It seemed to me that battlefield data analysis was fundamentally
different from the DoD-funded projects I also worked on -- with
ARPANET being the obvious example. Foundational communications
research is not in the same category as calculating how to more
efficiently kill your enemy. At least that's how I felt at the time,
and I still feel that way. There's nothing inherently evil in
accepting money from DoD -- the ethical issues revolve around the
specifics of the projects involved.
Fast forward to the controversy that has arisen today, about which
I've been flooded with queries -- word that Google has been engaged in
"Project Maven" for DoD, using Google AI/Machine Learning tech to
analyze footage from military drones. Apparently this wasn't widely
known even internally at Google, until the topic recently found its
way to internal discussion groups and then leaked to the public.
Needless to say, there reportedly has been quite considerable internal
controversy about this, to say the least.
"How do you feel about this, Lauren?" I'm being asked.
Since I frequently play armchair ethicist, I've been giving this
question a lot of thought today.
The parallels with that lunch discussion at RAND so long ago seem
striking. The military wanted to analyze battlefield data back then,
and they want to analyze military drone data now.
There are no simple answers.
But we can perhaps begin with the problem of innocent civilian deaths
resulting from U.S. drone strikes. We know that the designated
terrorist targets are frequently purposely embedded in civilian areas,
and often travel with civilians who have little or no choice in the
matter -- such as children and other family members.
While the Pentagon (as they did during the Vietnam war) makes a grand
show about body counts, it's not clear that most of these drone
strikes have much long-term anti-terrorism impact. The targets are
frequently fungible -- kill one leader and another moves right in.
Liquidate one bomb maker and the position is quickly filled by
So, ethical question #1: Are these drone strikes justifiable at all?
To answer this question honestly, we must of course consider the rate
of collateral civilian deaths and injuries, which are sure to inspire
further anti-U.S. rhetoric and attacks.
My personal belief is that in most cases -- at least to the extent
that we in the public are aware -- the answer to this question is
Which brings us to ethical question #2 (or rather, a set of
questions): Does supplying advanced image processing and analysis
systems for military drone data fall into an ethically acceptable
category, provided that such analysis is not specifically oriented
toward targeting for lethal operations? Can it be reasonably argued
that more precise targeting could also help to prevent civilian
casualties, even when those civilians are in immediate proximity to
the intended targets? Or is providing such facilities also ethical
even if direct lethal operations are known in advance to be the likely
result, toward the advancement of currently stated U.S. interests?
And after all, much of our technology today can be easily repurposed
in ways that we technologists had not intended -- for example, for
oppressive governments to surveil and censor their own citizens.
Yet the immense potential power of rapidly advancing AI and Machine
Learning systems do cast these kinds of issues in a new and
qualitatively different kind of light. And that's even if we leave
aside a business-based analysis that some firms might make, noting
that if they don't provide the services, some other company will do so
anyway, and get the contracts as well as the income.
I know absolutely nothing about Google's participation in Project
Maven other than what I've seen in public sources today.
But to try address the gist of my own questions from just above, based
on what I know right now, I believe that Google has a significant
ethical quandary on their hands in this regard.
I personally doubt that this kind of powerful tech can be constrained
through contractual relationships to purely defensive use. I also feel
that the decision regarding whether or not any given firm is willing
to accept that its technology may be used for lethal purposes is one
that should be made "eyes wide open" -- and is worthy of nothing less
than effectively a significant level of company-wide consensus before
It has been ages since I even thought about that long ago lunch
conversation at RAND. It's indeed disquieting to be thinking about it
Be seeing you.
Lauren Weinstein (lau...@vortex.com): https://www.vortex.com/lauren
Lauren's Blog: https://lauren.vortex.com
Google Issues Mailing List: https://vortex.com/google-issues
Founder: Network Neutrality Squad: https://www.nnsquad.org
PRIVACY Forum: https://www.vortex.com/privacy-info
Co-Founder: People For Internet Responsibility: https://www.pfir.org/pfir-info
Member: ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy
Tel: +1 (818) 225-2800
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