How a Pentagon Contract Became an Identity Crisis for Googl…


Last Thursday, Mr. Brin, the company’s co-founder, responded to a question at a companywide meeting about Google’s work on Maven. According to two Google employees, Mr. Brin said he understood the controversy and had discussed the matter extensively with Mr. Page and Mr. Pichai. However, he said he thought that it was better for peace if the world’s militaries were intertwined with international organizations like Google rather than working solely with nationalistic defense contractors.

Google and its parent company, Alphabet, employ many of the world’s top artificial intelligence researchers. Some researchers work inside an A.I. lab called Google Brain in Mountain View, Calif., and others are spread across separate groups, including the cloud computing business overseen by Ms. Greene, who is also an Alphabet board member.

Many of these researchers have recently arrived from the world of academia, and some retain professorships. They include Geoff Hinton, a Briton who helps oversee the Brain lab in Toronto and has been open about his reluctance to work for the United States government. In the late 1980s, Mr. Hinton left the United States for Canada in part because he was reluctant to take funding from the Department of Defense.

Jeff Dean, one of Google’s longest-serving and most revered employees, who now oversees all A.I. work at the company, said at a conference for developers this month that he had signed a letter opposing the use of so-called machine learning for autonomous weapons, which would identify targets and fire without a human pulling the trigger.

DeepMind, the London A.I. lab, is widely considered to be the most important collection of A.I. talent in the world. It now operates as a separate Alphabet company, though the lines between Google and DeepMind are blurred.

DeepMind’s founders have long warned about the dangers of A.I. systems. At least one of the lab’s founders, Mustafa Suleyman, has been involved in policy discussions involving Project Maven with the Google leadership, including Mr. Pichai, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

Certainly, any chance that Google could move quietly into defense work with no public attention is gone. Nor has Dr. Li’s hope to keep A.I. out of the debate proved realistic.

“We can steer the conversation about cloud,” Aileen Black, a Google executive in Washington, cautioned Dr. Li in the September exchange, “but this is an AI specific award.” She added, “I think we need to get ahead of this before it gets framed for us.”

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