Thousands of Google employees asked CEO Sundar Pichai to stop providing AI tech for the US military's drones

  • Thousands of Google employees signed a letter to CEO Sundar Pichai urging the company to end a controversial contract with the US Department of Defense.
  • The contract, which was first revealed in March, involves Google AI technology and military drones.
  • Google has long avoided being part of the military industrial complex, to the point where it seems to have been an unofficial company policy. The contract with the Department of Defense has upset many employees.


Thousands of Google employees have pleaded in a letter to CEO Sundar Pichai to stop providing technology to the Pentagon that could be used to improve the accuracy of drone attacks.

"We believe that Google should not be in the business of war," wrote the signers of the letter circulating within the company, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times.

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WUZHEN, CHINA - DECEMBER 03: Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., speaks during the 4th World Internet Conference on December 3, 2017 in Wuzhen, China. The 4th World Internet Conference - Wuzhen Summit themed with 'Developing digital economy for openness and shared benefits -- building a community of common future in cyberspace.' is held from Dec 3 to 5 in Wuzhen of Zhejiang. (Photo by Du Yang/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images)
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NEW DELHI, INDIA JANUARY 4: Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks during Digital Unlocked Google event at Taj palace on January 4, 2017 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images)
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Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., speaks during an event at Google's Kings Cross office in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. After being criticized for not paying its fair share of British tax, Alphabet Inc.s Google unit is trying to show its a good corporate citizen by offering five hours of free digital skills training to all U.K. residents. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., pauses during an event at Google's Kings Cross office in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. After being criticized for not paying its fair share of British tax, Alphabet Inc.s Google unit is trying to show its a good corporate citizen by offering five hours of free digital skills training to all U.K. residents. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., listens to a speaker during an event at Google's Kings Cross office in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. After being criticized for not paying its fair share of British tax, Alphabet Inc.s Google unit is trying to show its a good corporate citizen by offering five hours of free digital skills training to all U.K. residents. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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The signers, who represent a fraction of parent company Alphabet's 70,000 employees, ask that Google withdraw from Project Maven, a Pentagon pilot program, and for the company to pledge to never again "build warfare technology."

On Wednesday, in response to questions from Business Insider, a Google spokeswoman forwarded a statement. "We know that there are many open questions involved in the use of new technologies, so these conversations - with employees and outside experts - are hugely important and beneficial," the statement read in part.  

Last month, Google shocked many inside and outside the Mountain View-based company when it confirmed that it was providing the US military with artificial-intelligence technology that interprets video imagery. According to experts, the technology could be used to better pinpoint bombing targets.  The revelation first appeared in a report by Gizmodo.

An internal schism

Responding to Gizmodo's story, Google said the company's technology was "non-offensive" in nature and noted that the AI might assist military planners from hitting civilians. Google and the Pentagon added that the work under Project Maven would not lead to any autonomous weapons systems, the kind of robotic killing machines that critics fear will rise when AI is combined with weapon systems. Apparently, this came as small solace to some Google employees.

Google has long been associated with with the corporate motto "Don't be evil," and news the company had become a defense contractor has created something of  internal schism, according to the Times report. Still, disagreements within the company are nothing new. Managers have long encouraged workers to voice opinions and concerns about Google's direction.

In the past, petitions have been circulated on a range of issues including Google's sponsorship of a right-leaning conference. One  internal debate led to the firing of James Damorean engineer, who was critical of the company's diversity policies and claimed he was discriminated because of his conservative views. 

How much effect the letter to Pichai will have remains to be seen but the company's ties to the Pentagon go beyond Project Maven. Eric Schmidt, Google's former CEO and a current member of the executive board of Google's parent company, Alphabet, is a member of a Pentagon advisory board. 

To read the full letter, head on over to the New York Times.

Below is a copy of Google's full statement to Business Insider.

"An important part of our culture is having employees who are actively engaged in the work that we do. We know that there are many open questions involved in the use of new technologies, so these conversations - with employees and outside experts - are hugely important and beneficial. Maven is a well publicized DoD project and Google is working on one part of it - specifically scoped to be for non-offensive purposes and using open-source object recognition software available to any Google Cloud customer. The models are based on unclassified data only. The technology is used to flag images for human review and is intended to save lives and save people from having to do highly tedious work. Any mmilitary use of machine learning naturally raises valid concerns. We’re actively engaged across the company  in a comprehensive discussion of this important topic and also with outside experts, as we continue to develop our policies around the development and use of our machine learning technologies.”

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