After 3 years of veteran fanfare, Google meets the Pentagon


Jack Paulson, a former Google employee who is now CEO of the nonprofit Tech Inquiry, says the air gap and the Maven protesters deserve credit for derailing the company’s plans and forcing it to provide some AI oversight. But he says the broad exceptions built into AI principles and Google’s lax interpretation make them a shield used to distract scrutiny rather than a meaningful moral compass. “I think they just want the possibility of plausible deniability,” Paulson says. He left Google in late 2018 over a project that would have adapted search technology to accommodate Chinese internet censorship.

The Alphabet Workers Union, which represents a small minority of Google employees, Tweet on Monday that while Google’s AI principles state that technology should always be “socially beneficial,” Joint Warfighter Cloud Capability will “modernize DoD’s tools of war and lead to the extrajudicial killing of people around the world.”

Google still lags behind Amazon and Microsoft in competing for commercial cloud computing deals and government and defense contracts. Both have higher security certificates than Google, which allows them to handle confidential information. Both explicitly support working with the US government on national security.

Amazon deals with many parts of the Pentagon, including a part with Special Operations Command using artificial intelligence to analyze media captured by US forces. Microsoft contracts include a military project that will provide soldiers with augmented reality headsets. It has sparked employee protests but not on the scale of those at Google. An Amazon spokesperson said the company’s commitment to “ensuring our warfighters and defense partners have access to the best technology at the best price is stronger than ever.” Microsoft declined to comment. The company says its responsible AI office is reviewing “sensitive” uses of its technology.

Google’s opportunity to compete for the comprehensive Joint Warfighter Cloud Capability contract came after the Pentagon in July canceled the original $10 billion, called JEDI, which had been awarded to Microsoft. Amazon and Oracle have claimed in lawsuits that the award process was unfair.

The JWCC has a different format that will see many companies work together. The Pentagon said that Amazon and Microsoft are pre-qualified to bid and that it will consider inviting IBM, Oracle and Google.

This structure can be good for Google. The company said in late 2018 that it would not bid for JEDI because it could violate its AI principles, and it lacks security certifications – significantly. Corian said on his blog Friday that the loss of certificates was the “first” reason but that Google now has additional certificates. He said the JWCC format would allow Google to select contracts within the scope of AI principles, leaving more fraught work for others.

Jerry McGinn, executive director of the Center for Government Contracting at George Mason University, expects multi-cloud contracts to become popular as federal cloud spending grows. This can help Google negotiate the limitations of its AI principles and its lack of certifications.

McGinn says the standard contracts reduce the risk of legal challenges like the ones that have flooded JEDI and add competition that improves value for the Pentagon.

The Bloomberg government estimated that in 2020 the federal government spent $6.6 billion on cloud contracts, with defense agencies roughly a third of that total, and spending on the cloud was increasing about 10 percent annually. In 2019, the Pentagon released an artificial intelligence strategy calling for the technology to be adopted in every aspect of the US military, powered by cloud computing.

What exactly JWCC contractors will be required to do is not yet known. The name of the program indicates that some work may be directly related to the armed conflict. The Pentagon’s chief information officer said in July that the JWCC would provide better support than JEDI for AI projects — Google’s specialty — including a program to develop algorithms to help leaders set goals. The Pentagon is expected to release the formal request for proposals in the coming weeks, and aims to award contracts by April 2022.


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