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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 tricky ethics of neurotechnologies

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

As the science of brain-computer interfaces (BCI) and other neurotechnologies progresses, researchers are calling for ethical guidelines to be established now — before the technology fully matures.

Why it matters: We’re still far away from technologies that fully access and even read the human brain, but the sheer power of such tools — and the highly personal data they could gather — means society needs to determine what they should do before they actually can do it.

What COVID-19 vaccine trials still need to do

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

COVID-19 vaccines are being developed at record speed, but some experts fear the accelerated regulatory process could interfere with ongoing research about the vaccines.

Why it matters: Even after the first COVID-19 vaccines are deployed, scientific questions will remain about how they are working and how to improve them.

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Faces of COVID creator on telling the stories of those we've lost

America yesterday lost 2,762 people to COVID-19, per the CDC, bringing the total pandemic toll to 272,525. That's more than the population of Des Moines, Iowa. Or Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Or Toledo, Ohio.

Axios Re:Cap speaks with Alex Goldstein, creator of the @FacesofCOVID Twitter account, about sharing the stories behind the statistics.