The Pentagon’s Controversial Drone AI-Imaging Project Extends Beyond Google

The Pentagon’s Controversial Drone AI-Imaging Project Extends Beyond Google

Google has pressed forward with its effort to provide artificial intelligence solutions to the US Department of Defence, despite an internal employee petition against the company’s involvement in a pilot program that analyses drone footage using AI and the resignations of around a dozen employees who objected to the program.

But Google isn’t the only company partnering with the Department of Defence on Project Maven – the artificial intelligence pilot program at the heart of the controversy – and the Pentagon has explored the possibility of working with other major tech firms on Project Maven.

The involvement of other tech companies in Project Maven makes the project seem more like a bakeoff between several leaders in the field of artificial intelligence and less like a Google-led effort. It also raises questions about whether employees at other companies will raise the same ethical objections to the program that Google employees have.

DigitalGlobe, a Colorado-based firm that specialises in geospatial imagery, reportedly provides images and algorithms to Project Maven. IBM has been approached about participating in the project by using artificial intelligence to analyse streaming video, a person familiar with the exchange told Gizmodo. Nvidia has also indicated interest in the project, but it’s not clear whether either company has an official contract to work on Maven – IBM says it does not, while Nvidia declined to comment. DigitalGlobe did not yet respond to a request for comment.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which provides imagery and mapping analysis to U.S. intelligence agencies and the military, approached IBM about participating in Project Maven, Gizmodo has learned. NGA plays a support role in Project Maven and provides some training data used in the development of its artificial intelligence, according to a July 2017 House Intelligence Committee report.

A spokesperson for NGA confirmed to Gizmodo that the agency had approached IBM about Project Maven but noted that it does not award the contracts for the project – that responsibility is handled by DoD. “NGA has had several engagements related to Project Maven with multiple companies, although we have made no specific invitations,” the spokesperson added. “We want to encourage industry relationships with all who can play a role in refining IC and DoD capabilities with respect to automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence.”

IBM has not signed a contract to work on Maven, a spokesperson for the company explained. “IBM does not have and has not had a contract to work on Project Maven,” the spokesperson said. “We have no way of knowing what information from other projects may have been shared with Maven.”

Google’s official contract for Maven is through a third-party agency, ECS Federal, an arrangement that helps obscure the amount Google is paid and other contract details. Multiple Google sources told Gizmodo that executives have described the company’s Maven contract as being worth about $US9 ($12) million, although cloud contracts tend to be priced in tiers based on data use; Google’s ultimate earnings from the project could end up being much higher. A Google spokesperson did not respond when asked about the figure.

IBM offers a range of artificial intelligence services under its Watson branding, named after the company’s founder, Thomas Watson. IBM has historically taken on military contracts and maintains strong business partnerships with the federal government — so the company may be a more natural fit for Project Maven than Google is. Watson is currently used to predict maintenance needs for an Army fleet of armoured vehicles, reports Trajectory, a magazine published by the non-profit United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation.

The chipmaker Nvidia, which has experienced a recent bump in its stock price as it pushes artificial intelligence products, has also closely associated itself with Project Maven. Nvidia representatives have spoken publicly at events related to the project, invited Maven representatives to speak at corporate events, and even testified before Congress about Maven. A Nvidia spokesperson declined to clarify the company’s involvement in Project Maven.

“DoD has a huge influx of video coming in. Inside all this video are nuggets of intelligence, but there’s too much of it for analysts to ingest and digest to then make an intelligence decision on,” Kevin Berce, Nvidia’s business development manager, told Trajectory. “Machine learning is going to help tell the analysts where to look. If you’re looking for a white truck, why spend time looking at hours of video where there’s no white truck? Let’s just give the analysts the video where the white truck is.”

During Congressional testimony in February, Nvidia’s vice president and manager of its Tesla business, Ian Buck, cited Maven as an exemplary project for swift government adoption of artificial intelligence. “Using AI for aerial reconnaissance holds great promise to alleviate airmen from having to stare at screens for eight hours a day looking for a problem,” Buck explained.

The Department of Defence declined to elaborate on its contracts with specific tech companies but said that it works with a variety of vendors on Maven.

“We interact regularly with a variety of commercial vendors on capabilities they may be able to provide in support of ongoing and planned future [of] Maven-related activities. We are interested in a wide variety of companies providing information technology, data automation, and artificial intelligence capabilities,” a Pentagon spokesperson for Project Maven said. “We do not provide details regarding any specific contracting arrangements.”

Project Maven stands to benefit greatly from its partnerships in the private sector. More than a thousand analysts have labelled images to provide training data for Maven’s algorithms, which includes algorithms developed by DigitalGlobe. But as of early this year, those DigitalGlobe algorithms were only able to deliver a 70 per cent accuracy rate, according to Trajectory. Partnerships with leaders in the AI field, like Google, IBM, and Nvidia, could boost that rate.

And although Google employees have pushed back against their company’s involvement in Project Maven, it’s not clear that employees at other companies would do the same. In a petition asking Google to terminate its contract, Google employees acknowledged this possibility. “The argument that other firms, like Microsoft and Amazon, are also participating doesn’t make this any less risky for Google. Google’s unique history, its motto Don’t Be Evil, and its direct reach into the lives of billions of users set it apart,” they wrote.

However, Project Maven — and its affiliation with drone warfare – may be where IBM employees draw an ethical line. “There are many tech workers at IBM who will outright reject projects that facilitate illegal drone strikes and other human rights violations internationally by the U.S. military,” said an IBM employee who requested anonymity because they are not authorised to discuss IBM’s engagements with Project Maven. A petition launched by the Tech Workers Coalition in mid-April asks IBM, along with Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, not to accept Pentagon contracts, citing objections to Project Maven.

In a recent blog post, IBM said it is committed to the ethical and responsible advancement of AI technology, and that AI should be used to augment human decision-making rather than replace it.

If companies like Google want their employees and the public to trust their decisions to accept military AI contracts, transparency is crucial, says Miles Brundage, an AI policy research fellow at the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute.

“There are lots of things they could do. It’s not clear what they’re willing to do. The first thing is transparency, obviously, and the explanations have not been coherent,” he said. “What are their principles? Why is this something that is in shareholder interest or in the public interest?”

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