Nov 14, 2020 - Technology

AI talent appears open to working on defense — with caveats

An aerial view of the Pentagon.
An aerial view of the Pentagon. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images

A new survey offers some evidence that most artificial intelligence experts are positive or neutral when it comes to working with the Pentagon on AI-enabled projects.

Why it matters: Employee concerns have led some tech companies to pull back from working on defense-related projects in the past, but for many in the AI world, the chance to work on intellectually challenging projects — and the Pentagon's not insignificant budget — seems too good to pass up.

What's happening: In a report released earlier this week — with the memorable title "'Cool Projects' or 'Expanding the Efficiency of the Murderous American War Machine?'" — researchers at CSET surveyed 160 AI professionals about their attitudes toward working on DoD projects.

  • They found nearly 40% were neutral and 38% were extremely or somewhat positive, while less than a quarter felt extremely or somewhat negative about working on a Pentagon-funded AI project.
  • While some respondents said they were motivated by patriotism, and the most popular area was in humanitarian-focused projects, the biggest draw was "in doing cutting-edge research on complex problems," says Catherine Aiken, a survey specialist at CSET and one of the co-authors of the report.

Flashback: In 2018, after thousands of employees signed a protest letter, Google CEO Sundar Pichai pulled out of a contract to work on Project Maven, a DoD-funded pilot AI program to develop computer vision algorithms.

  • "The belief [in Silicon Valley] is somehow that the military shouldn’t have these technologies," says Anduril's Schimpf.

Yes, but: That narrative was "overblown," argues New America's Singer.

  • In the wake of Google's decision, both Microsoft and Amazon continued forward with bids on the Pentagon's $10 billion cloud-computing contract, despite some employee blowback.

Between the lines: That doesn't mean the controversies will end.

  • What separates AI from many other technologies is its general nature. The same underlying technology that powers a computer vision algorithm could be used for humanitarian purposes as well as for lethal warfare.

The bottom line: Unlike military technologies in the past such as radar or nuclear weapons, cutting-edge research in AI is overwhelmingly dominated by the private sector. That means the Pentagon needs Silicon Valley — and needs to understand it.

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