Does Google have a patriotism problem?

Jack Murphy
December 05, 2019 - 11:00 am
The future of AI

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)


In 1933, IBM was at the forefront of punch card computing, the idea that holes can be punched in a thin piece of cardboard, each perforation representing an answer to an individual's identity be it gender or ethnic group. The American company forged a strategic alliance with Germany as they were very interested in conducting a nationwide census. The goal was for the German government to identify Jews, gypsies, and other groups seen as undesirable by the Third Reich. IBM's scientific approach to library science with punch card tabulations provided technology to the Nazi regime that allowed for the extermination of human beings at an industrial scale never seen before.  The relationship was well researched and documented in the Edwin Black book, "IBM and The Holocaust." 

Today, it is tech companies like Google which innovate and pioneer library science to include the tagging, sorting, and cataloging of information.

In 2019, humanity seems to stand at the precipice of another new technology, machine learning and artificial intelligence. A.I. promises to revolutionize how we live our daily lives but a competing world vision also offers us insight into an Orwellian nightmare the likes of which has no precedent in human history. The People's Republic of China has developed a panopticon state that uses advanced technologies to tag, track, locate, identify, surveil, and even kill its citizens. It is an unblinking eye that had shown its true intent with the slow-motion genocide currently unfolding in Xinjiang as the minority Muslim population is "re-educated" or murdered. Many of the technologies China uses to this end may have been either stolen from western corporations or developed in business partnerships.

Two competing world visions are currently competing for supremacy in the 21st century. The western world promotes a form of liberal democracy while China's communist government sees the future as belonging to them and to Chinese dominance after what they see as a century of humiliation at the hands of the west.

Standing somewhere between these two visions is Google.

Previously, Google attempted to start a search engine in China but had been blocked. The company still runs an A.I. research center in China that is said to be working on speech patterns. Fei-Fei Li, who is the company's chief A.I. engineer for Google cloud said, “I believe A.I. and its benefits have no borders. Whether a breakthrough occurs in Silicon Valley, Beijing or anywhere else, it has the potential to make everyone’s life better." This A.I. research center continues its work in Shanghai despite China's ongoing genocide against the Muslim Uighur population.

At the same time, Google employees refuse to work with the United States military. While the corporate heads appear interested in the added business, their own employees have often revolted at the prospect of working with their own country's military. "We believe that Google should not be in the business of war," employees wrote in a open letter to their CEO protesting their involvement in DOD projects. "Amid growing fears of biased and weaponized A.I., Google is already struggling to keep the public’s trust," the letter continues, "Building this technology to assist the U.S. Government in military surveillance – and potentially lethal outcomes – is not acceptable."

In the future, A.I. will scan battlefields and process information using electronic sensors far faster than human beings ever can. At least for the foreseeable future, it will still be a human being pulling the trigger (even if the weapon system is fired from a drone) but A.I. will speed up the pace of combat operations and leave military forces with few, if any, places to hide in the war zones of tomorrow. The two great powers currently offering conflicting visions of what the rest of the 21st and 22nd centuries will look like will certainly use A.I. in the wars of tomorrow. Whoever has the best A.I. may walk away from the next global war with all the marbles.

Last year, Google withdrew from Maven, an A.I. program being designed for the U.S. military to help identify targets after employees protested. At the time, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) expressed his displeasure saying, "They basically acquiesced to a woke segment of their workforce," referring to employees who identify as liberal progressives. At big corporations, younger employees are increasingly activist in nature, part of a larger trend seen worldwide as a result of globalization, political polarization, and people finding their political identities. Google employees have objected to working with not just military projects but also with other agencies who may be involved in building databases on America's Muslim population as President Trump once alluded to in 2016, visions of IBM's role in the holocaust prominent in their minds.

Google has laid out its ethical guidelines for the use of A.I., stating that they will not develop it as a military technology for weapons or otherwise causing harm to people but these claims may carry little weight considering how many technologies have a dual-use. Plus, once these technologies are sold there is no telling how end-users, including governments, will implement or modify them.

In the end, declining to work with the U.S. military is likely to be detrimental to the liberal values espoused by Google's employees. The issues they are likely to care the most about, including LGBT rights, minority rights, environmentalism, and more are the issues that China's communist government cares the least about. In the battle for the future of world order, it is the United States backed by its military that will offer a competing world view.

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Reach Jack Murphy: or @JackMurphyRGR.