Reports of the death of Silicon Valley’s relationship with the Pentagon have been greatly exaggerated.
The U.S. Army just awarded a landmark contract to Palantir, the Palo Alto data analytics company, the Washington Post reported on Tuesday. The contract marks the latest string tying Bay Area technology companies to the U.S. Defense Department, even as some of these companies’ employees have successfully pushed back against any work that could be considered advancing the technologies of war.
After a years-long legal and technological fight, Palantir won a lengthy court battle against the Defense Department and then beat out military contracting stalwart Raytheon to win the lucrative contract to provide real-time maps and analytics to soldiers in the field through a system called the Distributed Common Ground System (or DCGS-A).
The U.S. military began its search for DCGS contractors in 2015. Facing off against old school military contractors like Raytheon, Palantir sued the Army in order to be considered. In 2016, a judge agreed with the company that by not initially considering the company’s offerings, the Army violated a 1994 law to conduct full market research for commercially available offerings. Palantir sued the U.S. Navy in 2017 for the same reason and with the same result.
The court-room victories and this week’s contract award are landmark moments for Palantir, one of nearly a dozen Silicon Valley companies that are flirting with filing for an IPO in 2019. The company, co-founded by Peter Thiel, overcame years of massive bureaucratic resistance to the idea of the Pentagon buying a commercially available data product instead of something custom-built by Raytheon, an East Coast military-industrial institution. (Disclosure: In 2016, Peter Thiel secretly bankrolled a lawsuit against Gizmodo’s former owner, Gawker Media, resulting in the company’s bankruptcy.)
Theil has a decades-long list of headlines behind him. He was a PayPal co-founder, the first outside investor in Facebook, a rare San Francisco Bay Area cheerleader, tech adviser for Donald Trump and a man who is known to spend his multibillion-dollar fortune on ventures like immortality, the singularity, and getting kids to drop out of college, among other things. Palantir is a developer of increasingly common predictive policing technology that’s used by law enforcement agencies around the United States. And based on Palantir’s opaque contracts with Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement, its tech is reportedly helping fuel the agency’s accelerated deportations under President Trump.
The new Pentagon contract, which could be worth more than $800 million, comes as both the Defense Department and Silicon Valley have publicly struggled to figure out how to do business together while tech workers and consumers protested the nature of the work.
Project Maven, a Defense Department initiative for which Google helped to develop an AI imaging system for military drones, is the most prominent example of the Silicon Valley-Pentagon split. U.S. General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the nation’s top general, met with Google CEO Sundar Pichai on Wednesday to discuss the company’s fraught relationship with the Pentagon as well as Google’s business in China. (Trump also apparently attended the meeting.)
But for all of the worry about the failing relationship, Silicon Valley and the Pentagon are still very much linked. Even the old contractors, most associated with the Beltway immediately surrounding Washington, D.C., do much of their work in Silicon Valley.
Palantir has always aimed to sell its commercial data tools to the U.S. military and intelligence agencies. “Supporting Soldiers in their critical missions, and making sure they come home safely to their families, is a point of immense pride at Palantir. It’s why we started the company. We look forward to our partnership with the men and women of the U.S. Army and will do everything we can to ensure this technology makes them more successful,” Doug Philippone, head of Palantir’s Defense Business, told Gizmodo in an email.
Less than 10 minutes down the road from Palantir’s Palo Alto headquarters, Lockheed Martin runs its Advanced Technology Center where it develops billions of dollars worth of technology including military satellites, artificial intelligence, and laser weapons that it sells to the U.S. military for a business worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Northrop Grumman will do most of the work in nearby Sunnyvale on a recently awarded $273 million contract to build missile launchers for future Navy submarines.
America’s Big Tech firms are largely still working with the Pentagon. Microsoft recently signed a $480 million contract with the Pentagon to sell the company’s HoloLens technology. And Amazon, which already runs the CIA’s cloud infrastructure, is considered the top competitor for a controversial $10 billion Pentagon cloud contract (or at least was, pending a conflict-of-interest investigation). On top of that, Palantir uses Amazon Web Services, which also makes this contract an indirect win for the company aiming to do more Defense Department business.
At an event in San Francisco on Tuesday, a Pentagon adviser who previously helped launch and then managed Project Maven urged closer collaboration between Silicon Valley and the Defense Department.
“I think most here today would agree that militaries and their role in deterrence, offense and defense are part of world and will be for the foreseeable future,” Brendan McCord, a special adviser to the Pentagon and, as of last month, president at the venture capital firm Tulco Labs, said at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference.
“But there are a multiplicity of views within the AI community on technology’s role in national security. One perspective is that armies of lawful democratic nations whose arsenals are set up for defensive purposes and protecting human rights and who are held accountable can promote peace and stability in the world. They require modern technology to do that in order to do that, technology such as AI.”
McCord called for “proactive engagement” that, he said, would ultimately get more voices heard in national security decisions.
It’s not clear what that means, and McCord didn’t answer follow up questions. After they build and sell tech, what exactly will Silicon Valley voices contribute to the Pentagon?
Still trying to find its own footing as the company walks a high tech tightrope forward, Google announced a new external advisory board at EmTech to advance the responsible use of artificial intelligence by the company.
The actual members of the board—an already controversial group including the president of the right-wing think tank the Heritage Foundation and the CEO of a drone company—seem to have little idea about what comes next.
Joanna Bryson, an academic leader in AI ethics and an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Bath, is one of the eight-member council. In a conversation with Gizmodo, Bryson self-identified as a leftist compared to other council members and argued that Google engaging with the U.S. military could lead to positive outcomes.
“I am slightly worried that it’s too easy to walk out every time someone mentions the military,” Bryson said. “Of course, it’s also too easy to just trust everything the military says. We’re going to need to think harder.”
All signs point to the 3,000-mile distance between the Pentagon and Silicon Valley shrinking significantly as the two places continue to work closely together. The question is will the Valley change the Pentagon, as people like McCord suggest it will, or is the relationship destined to be much more mathematical than all that?