From improving medicine to better search engines to assistants that help ease busy schedules, artificial intelligence is already proving a boon to society. But just as it can be designed to help, it can be designed to harm and even to kill.
Military uses of AI can also run the gamut from programs that could help improve food distribution logistics to weapons that can identify and assassinate targets without input from humans. Because AI programs can have these dual uses, it’s difficult for companies who do not want their technology to cause harm to work with militaries – it’s not currently possible for a company to ensure that if it helps the military solve a benign problem with an AI program that the program won’t later be repurposed to take human lives.
So when employees at Google learned earlier this year about the company’s involvement in the Pentagon’s Project Maven, they were upset. Though Google argues that their work on Project Maven only assisted the U.S. military with image recognition tools from drone footage, many suggest that this technology could later be used for harm. In response, over 3,000 employees signed an open letter saying they did not want their work to be used to kill.
And it isn’t just Google’s employees who are concerned.
Earlier this week, the International Committee for Robot Arms Control released an open letter signed by hundreds of academics calling on Google’s leadership to withdraw from the “business of war.” The letter, which is addressed to Google’s leadership, responds to the growing criticism of Google’s participation in the Pentagon’s program, Project Maven.
The letter states, “we write in solidarity with the 3100+ Google employees, joined by other technology workers, who oppose Google’s participation in Project Maven.” It goes on to remind Google leadership to be cognizant of the incredible responsibility the company has for safeguarding the data it’s collected from its users, as well as its famous motto, “Don’t Be Evil.”
Specifically, the letter calls on Google to:
- “Terminate its Project Maven contract with the DoD.
- “Commit not to develop military technologies, nor to allow the personal data it has collected to be used for military operations.
- “Pledge to neither participate in nor support the development, manufacture, trade or use of autonomous weapons; and to support efforts to ban autonomous weapons.”
Lucy Suchman, one of the letter’s authors, explained part of her motivation for her involvement:
“For me the greatest concern is that this effort will lead to further reliance on profiling and guilt by association in the US drone surveillance program, as the only way to generate signal out of the noise of massive data collection. There are already serious questions about the legality of targeted killing, and automating it further will only make it less accountable.”
The letter was released the same week that a small group of Google employees made news for resigning in protest against Project Maven. It also comes barely a month after a successful boycott by academic researchers against KAIST’s autonomous weapons effort.
In addition, last month the United Nations held their most recent meeting to consider a ban on lethal autonomous weapons. 26 countries, including China, have now said they would support some sort of official ban on these weapons.
In response to the number of signatories the open letter has received, Suchman added, “This is clearly an issue that strikes a chord for many researchers who’ve been tracking the incorporation of AI and robotics into military systems.”
If you want to add your name to the letter, you can do so here.