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Google’s involvement in the Pentagon’s controversial Project Maven kicked up a storm within the company in recent months, prompting more than 3,000 employees to sign a letter in opposition and more than a dozen to resign. Despite the protests, internal emails obtained by the Intercept show that the Mountain View company planned to ramp up artificial intelligence research for military drones.

One September exchange between Google AI chief Fei-Fei Li, two members of Google’s defense and intelligence sales team, and members of the communications team, notes that Project Maven alone would net $15 million over the next 18 months, and as much as $250 million in the coming years. They also show that Google competed with Amazon to secure a vaunted slot on Project Maven and that the contract was “directly related” to a cloud computing contract worth billions of dollars.

The Intercept speculates that the computing contract is the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI), a 10-year, $10 billion initiative that seeks to migrate much of the U.S. military’s data to a commercial cloud provider. The exchanges reveal that the Pentagon was “fast-tracking” Google’s cloud clearance and that work was expected to progress fairly rapidly.

Internally, Google executives downplayed the impact of the Defense Department contract on the company’s bottom line. Google Cloud CEO Diane Greene told employees during an all-hands meeting that Project Maven was for “only” $9 million.


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The conflicting narrative adds yet another wrinkle to Google’s ongoing struggle over ethical uses of AI.

Jeff Dean, who oversees Google’s AI research, signed a letter opposing the use of machine learning for autonomous weapons. Google cofounder Sergey Brin has spoken at length about the subject with Larry Page, CEO of Google’s holding company, Alphabet, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai, according to the New York Times. And executives at London-based Google subsidiary DeepMind have expressed concerns about the company’s direction. On Wednesday, Google said it is developing an ethics policy that will explicitly ban the use of artificial intelligence in weaponry.

“I don’t know what would happen if the media starts picking up a theme that Google is secretly building AI weapons or AI technologies to enable weapons for the Defense industry,” Li wrote. “Google Cloud has been building our theme on Democratizing AI in 2017, and Diane and I have been talking about Humanistic AI for enterprise. I’d be super careful to protect these very positive images.”

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