Google reportedly won’t renew controversial drone imaging program

Enlarge / Orion is a military drone that can fly for five days with 1,000 pounds of payload. Aurora says it can perform surveillance missions 3,000 miles from home base.

It looks like the drama surrounding Google’s controversial involvement in Project Maven is coming to an end. Yet another report from Gizmodo on the subject says that Google won’t be renewing the project once its current contract runs out.

Project Maven is an initiative from the Department of Defense, which aims to “accelerate DoD’s integration of big data and machine learning.” The DoD has millions of hours of drone footage that pour in from around the world, and having humans comb through it for “objects of interest” isn’t a scalable proposition. So Maven recruited several tech firms for image recognition technology that could be used to identify objects of interest in the footage. As one of the leading AI firms, Google signed on to the project with a contract that reportedly lasts until 2019.

Maven was Google’s first military contract, and the move was immediately met with resistance by Google’s employees. Despite Google’s assurances that the project was “specifically scoped to be for non-offensive purposes,” an internal petition signed by over 4,000 employees demanded that Google leave the project. “The technology is being built for the military,” the letter read. “Once it’s delivered, it could easily be used to assist in [lethal] tasks.” The petition didn’t immediately result in a change in Google’s plan, which led to a dozen employees reportedly quitting the company in protest.

After all that internal strife, Project Maven’s dissenters have apparently won out. Gizmodo now reports that during a weekly meeting on Google Cloud’s business (an event that is apparently called “Weather Report”), Cloud CEO Diane Greene told employees the Maven contract would not be renewed after it expires in 2019. The report paraphrases Greene as saying that “the backlash has been terrible for the company” and that an AI ethics plan would be out next week.

The Maven contract was of little value to Google right now, but executives reportedly viewed Maven as a gateway to more lucrative military and intelligence contracts. Development on Maven necessitated higher security authorizations for Google’s cloud infrastructure, which, once granted, opened the door to billions of dollars worth of Pentagon contracts.

For now, Google is on the hook with Project Maven until 2019, and then it will reportedly stop. That’s just a single project though. It’s unknown what Google’s future relationship with the Pentagon will be like.

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