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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.

Go deeper

The defense industry worries about Biden

Data: FactSet; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

America's defense contractors aren't celebrating Joe Biden's victory. They haven't accepted defeat yet, but they are digging in for budgetary battles.

Why it matters: The biggest companies in the military-industrial complex tend to see increasing revenues only under Republican presidents.

Bill Gates faces scrutiny over relationship with Microsoft employee, Epstein ties

Photo: Alessandro Di Ciommo/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Representatives for Bill Gates pushed back on claims Sunday that he left Microsoft's board because of an earlier sexual relationship and against two other reports detailing more extensive ties with Jeffrey Epstein than had previously been reported.

Driving the news: Microsoft said in an emailed statement to Axios that it "received a concern" in 2019 that its co-founder "sought to initiate an intimate relationship with a company employee in the year 2000," but denied a Wall Street Journal report that its board members thought Gates should resign over the matter.

AT&T in talks with Discovery to combine media assets

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

AT&T is in talks with media giant Discovery about merging its media assets, like CNN, TBS and TNT, according to two sources familiar with the discussions.

Why it matters: A potential merger could allow AT&T and Discovery to better compete with entertainment giants like Disney and Netflix in the video streaming wars.