Executives at Google have addressed in detail the company’s pursuit of a multi-billion-dollar contract with the Department of Defense. The move has been criticized and come under significant resistance internally from Google employees.
According to audio recordings obtained by CNBC, the company’s CEO Sundar Pichai and head of the Cloud Division Thomas Kurian, are heard defending Google's efforts to secure the Pentagon contract. The US Department of Defense is trying to build its cloud capabilities under a program called the “Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability.”
The contract has attracted interest from other major US tech firms. However, it is the internal resistance by Google employees that is making it harder for the search engine giant to proceed.
It's not the first time though that Google has tried to work on Pentagon projects. The Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability is the predecessor of the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure or JEDI.
It was a program by the Pentagon that wanted to enhance cloud capabilities within the US military. However, the JEDI program had its fair share of controversy. At first, Google applied for the deal but later pulled out after pressure from its employees. Despite this, other major US tech giants like Amazon, Oracle, and Microsoft went for it.
Although the $10 billion contract was later awarded to Microsoft, Amazon filed a complaint arguing that former president Donald Trump had unduly interfered with the tendering process in favor of Microsoft.
At the time, Trump had a publicized spat with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. It was therefore conceivable that indeed the former president could interfere to disadvantage the e-commerce giant and its cloud service.
Due to this controversy, the Pentagon decided to cancel the contract and re-tender areas in what is now the Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability of JWCC.
But despite this, it seems like many Google employees are still not on board. In fact, during the meeting, Sundar Pichai read a question from one employee asking why Google was still pursuing the JWCC program if indeed it decided to pull out from the previous JEDI.
After all, these appear to be the same programs only with a different name. Many employees argue that working with the Pentagon could lead to the abuse of Artificial Intelligence, something that many argue is against AI ethics and best practices.
However, Kurian, the head of Google’s Cloud, argued that there are many ways the expertise of the company can help the Department of Defense more ethically. Kurian added that the goal for Google is to offer its expertise without conflicting with its own AI ethical principles. Whether that is possible is still a big question.
It’s also clear that most Google employees are not sure if indeed this is the right way to go. For instance, a tweet sent by the Alphabet Workers Union, the organization that represents all Google employees, read “Google, we will not modernize warfare”. It’s the clearest sign that the company could face opposition as it tries to pursue this lucrative contract.