Google is working with Pentagon to help it identify objects from drone footage using AI, even as employees are furious about it

Google had faced a lot of flak for acquiring Boston Dynamics, the company that makes war-ready robots (now owned by Softbank). Looks like it is in for some more criticism after it was discovered that the Mountain View-based firm is working with the US Department of Defence (DoD) and is helping it develop artificial intelligence to analyse drone footage.

File image of Pentagon. Reuters

File image of Pentagon. Reuters

Google has partnered with the Pentagon on a special initiative called 'Project Maven'. This project is also known as the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team (AWCFT). This project helps identify objects seen in drone footage.

Google employees are reportedly not too happy with the fact that the company they work for is offering its resources for military surveillance. According to Gizmodo, the collaboration is being widely discussed within the company after it emerged from Google's internal mailing list that it was indeed working with the US defence department. Some employees have even raised the question of ethics when it comes to the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning for military activities.

Google has come on record and said that its involvement with Project Maven is not related to combat use.

Project Maven came to the fore in April 2017 with the stated objective of accelerating the department of defence's integration of big data and machine learning. The DoD's spend on AI-related innovations is to the tune of $7.4 billion according to the Wall Street Journal.

Now while the drones employed by the US defence department are loaded with sensors to gather a lot of information during flight, there is no effective way of analysing the data generated by these sensors and video footage. Human analysts could only do so much. So Maven was created with the express purpose of using machine learning to identify objects such as vehicles, houses and more, in the drone footage. Since Google owns YouTube, the DoD could not have asked for a better partner.

Maven can help with automatic object detection and identification in around 38 categories. Apart from this, Maven also allows the department to track individuals as they come and go from different locations.

According to a Google spokesperson who spoke to Gizmodo, the company's involvement includes providing TensorFlow application programming interfaces (APIs) which are used in machine learning algorithms to assist the military analysts to detect objects in images. APIs are software-based rules helping computer programs to communicate with each other. TensorFlow is Google's popular tool for AI prowess in the fields of computer vision and machine learning.

"This specific project is a pilot with the Department of Defence, to provide open source TensorFlow APIs that can assist in object recognition on unclassified data," said Google's spokesperson.

According to him, the objects are tagged for review by military analysts and are meant for non-offensive uses only. Responding to the question of ethics of using machine learning in military activities, the Google spokesperson said that the company is actively discussing the topic internally as well as with others to continue to develop policies and safeguards around the development and usage of machine learning.

Eric Schmidt stepped down as the executive chairman of Alphabet in December 2017. His current role is as chairman of the Defence Innovation Board, which is an independent federal committee.

According to a Bloomberg report, US defence secretary James Mattis had visited the Google HQ to meet with company officials to discuss the best ways to use AI, cloud computing and cybersecurity for the Pentagon.

There is no evidence, yet, if any other technology company is also involved with Project Maven.

Updated Date: Mar 07, 2018 11:29 AM