Graphic: Jim Cooke, Photo: Getty

Google has partnered with the United States Department of Defense to help the agency develop artificial intelligence for analyzing drone footage, a move that set off a firestorm among employees of the technology giant when they learned of Google’s involvement.

Google’s pilot project with the Defense Department’s Project Maven, an effort to identify objects in drone footage, has not been previously reported, but it was discussed widely within the company last week when information about the project was shared on an internal mailing list, according to sources who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the project.


Some Google employees were outraged that the company would offer resources to the military for surveillance technology involved in drone operations, sources said, while others argued that the project raised important ethical questions about the development and use of machine learning.

Google‚Äôs Eric Schmidt summed up the tech industry‚Äôs concerns about collaborating with the Pentagon at a talk last fall. ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs a general concern in the tech community of somehow the military-industrial complex using their stuff to kill people incorrectly,‚ÄĚ he said. While Google says its involvement in Project Maven is not related to combat uses, the issue has still sparked concern among employees, sources said.

Project Maven, a fast-moving Pentagon project also known as the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team (AWCFT), was established in April 2017. Maven‚Äôs stated mission is to ‚Äúaccelerate DoD‚Äôs integration of big data and machine learning.‚ÄĚ In total, the Defense Department spent $7.4 billion on artificial intelligence-related areas in 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported.


The project‚Äôs first assignment was to help the Pentagon efficiently process the deluge of video footage collected daily by its aerial drones‚ÄĒan amount of footage so vast that human analysts can‚Äôt keep up, according to Greg Allen, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security, who co-authored a lengthy July 2017 report on the military‚Äôs use of artificial intelligence. Although the Defense Department has poured resources into the development of advanced sensor technology to gather information during drone flights, it has lagged in creating analysis tools to comb through the data.

‚ÄúBefore Maven, nobody in the department had a clue how to properly buy, field, and implement AI,‚ÄĚ Allen wrote.

Maven was tasked with using machine learning to identify vehicles and other objects in drone footage, taking that burden off analysts. Maven’s initial goal was to provide the military with advanced computer vision, enabling the automated detection and identification of objects in as many as 38 categories captured by a drone’s full-motion camera, according to the Pentagon. Maven provides the department with the ability to track individuals as they come and go from different locations.


Artificial intelligence is already deployed in law enforcement and military applications, but researchers warn that these systems may be significantly biased in ways that aren’t easily detectible. For example, ProPublica reported in 2016 that an algorithm used to predict the likelihood of recidivism among inmates routinely exhibited racial bias.

Although Google’s involvement stirred up concern among employees, it’s possible that Google’s own product offerings limit its access to sensitive government data. While its cloud competitors, Amazon and Microsoft Azure, offer government-oriented cloud products designed to hold information classified as secret, Google does not currently have a similar product offering.

A Google spokesperson told Gizmodo in a statement that it is providing the Defense Department with TensorFlow APIs, which are used in machine learning applications, to help military analysts detect objects in images. Acknowledging the controversial nature of using machine learning for military purposes, the spokesperson said the company is currently working ‚Äúto develop polices and safeguards‚ÄĚ around its use.


‚ÄúWe have long worked with government agencies to provide technology solutions. This specific project is a pilot with the Department of Defense, to provide open source TensorFlow APIs that can assist in object recognition on unclassified data,‚ÄĚ the spokesperson said. ‚ÄúThe technology flags images for human review, and is for non-offensive uses only. Military use of machine learning naturally raises valid concerns. We‚Äôre actively discussing this important topic internally and with others as we continue to develop policies and safeguards around the development and use of our machine learning technologies.‚ÄĚ

The Defense Department set an aggressive timeline for Maven‚ÄĒthe project was expected to be up and running just six months after it was founded, and reportedly has been deployed in the fight against the Islamic State since December.

To meet the aggressive timetable, the Defense Department partnered with AI experts in the tech industry and academia, working through Defense Information Unit Experimental, the department’s tech incubation program, and the Defense Innovation Board, an advisory group created by former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to bridge the technological gap between the Pentagon and Silicon Valley.


Schmidt, who stepped down as executive chairman of Google parent company Alphabet last month, chairs the Defense Innovation Board. During a July meeting, Schmidt and other members of the Defense Innovation Board discussed the Department of Defense‚Äôs need to create a clearinghouse for training data that could be used to enhance the military‚Äôs AI capability. Board members played an ‚Äúadvisory role‚ÄĚ on Project Maven, according to meeting minutes, while ‚Äúsome members of the Board‚Äôs teams are part of the executive steering group that is able to provide rapid input‚ÄĚ on Project Maven.

Maven is overseen by the undersecretary for defense intelligence and Lt. Gen. John Shanahan was selected as the project‚Äôs director. Maven was designed to be the spark, according to Shanahan, that would kindle ‚Äúthe flame front of artificial intelligence‚ÄĚ across the entire Defense Department.

By summer 2017, the team set out to locate commercial partners whose expertise was needed to make its AI dreams a reality. At the Defense One Tech Summit in Washington, Maven chief Marine Corps Col. Drew Cukor said a symbiotic relationship between humans and computers was crucial to help weapon systems detect objects.


Speaking to a crowd of military and industry technology experts, many from Silicon Valley, Cukor professed the US to be in the midst of AI arms race. ‚ÄúMany of you will have noted that Eric Schmidt is calling Google an AI company now, not a data company,‚ÄĚ he said, although Cukor did not specifically cite Google as a Maven partner.

‚ÄúThere is no ‚Äėblack box‚Äô that delivers the AI system the government needs, at least not now,‚ÄĚ he continued. ‚ÄúKey elements have to be put together ‚Ķ and the only way to do that is with commercial partners alongside us.‚ÄĚ

A spokesperson for the Defense Department declined to say whether Google was its only private industry partner on Project Maven or to clarify Google’s role in the project.


‚ÄúSimilar to other DOD programs, Project Maven does not comment on the specifics of contract details, including the names and identities of program contractors and subcontractors,‚ÄĚ the spokesperson said.

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