In matters of hypocrisy and inequality, distinctions remain important.
Google has announced that it will stop its work on Maven, a contract with the Defense Department under which it helped improve artificial intelligence to identify objects and people photographed by drones. According to news reports, Google ended this project under pressure from its employees who did not want to be complicit in devices that could be used on the battlefield.
Google’s employees have either failed to think through the moral consequences of their decision or, even more to their discredit, believe that the United States is worse than authoritarian and communist nations, like Russia and China. The question is not whether the weapons using AI will be developed, but who will develop them first. Refusing to work with our Defense Department makes it more likely that such nations will acquire capabilities before the United States and thereby put at risk the freedoms these employees enjoy.
Google’s decision is particularly disturbing, because drones are needed to combat the asymmetrical warfare waged by terrorists. Without new kinds of weapons that permit surprise attacks by the United States on their hideouts, terrorists are likely to kill more innocent civilians. Without weapons that permit more accurate targeting, attempts to kill these terrorists will also likely result in the unintended deaths of innocent civilians. Drones are thus a moral technology for the new kind of war which the United States wages not only for itself but for people the world over.
Around the time of World War II, George Orwell famously said that pacifism was objectively pro-fascist. Similarly, the refusal to work for a just government in our age can make the work of terrorists easier.
These employees resemble the nuclear disarmament demonstrators in the West during the Cold War. Indeed, Google employees’ actions are worse. Perhaps one might have naively hoped that pressure on Western governments would lead to useful nuclear arms control treaties between the Soviets and the United States. But international agreements not to work on artificial intelligence in drones are impossible to imagine. They would be impossible to verify, and most nations would rightly be unwilling to end research by firms that might help their economies even if it also redounded to their military advantage.
Google is populated by recent graduates of our elite universities. It is thus not surprising that its employees behave so much like so many students. They ignore the virtues of the society that supports their freedom and prosperity and instead spend their energy signaling their own virtue at that society’s expense.