Search and software giant Google is known for creating software services for a range of clients. In addition to its popular consumer products, business services are a huge source of revenue for Google. However, can you imagine a scenario where employees working with the company don’t want the company to develop a certain kind of software? This to a level where they would even resign from the company, a company that is among the top workplaces to work.
Considering recent developments, you don’t need to imagine as the scenario painted here is real and employees are leaving the company in protest of the company’s Project Maven. If you can recall the name then this is not the first time that we are discussing it. For the people who don’t know what we are talking about, Project Maven is Google’s internal pilot program where it is providing artificial intelligence to the military.
Going through the details of the project, it is not all that apocalyptic and it may, in theory, not lead to the rise of machines and development of Skynet or Terminators. The program aims at increasing the speed of analysis of the footage that military drones have captured. The AI-powered system is meant to automatically differentiate between people and objects in the footage while tagging it with generated information.
We first head about the project a few weeks back when it was reported that the employees want Google to shut down the project and not take up any similar project. But Google decided to continue with the pilot program and now it seems like its employees have gone the next level to express their concerns. According to a detailed report by Gizmodo, “a dozen” employees at the company are resigning to protest. The reasons for resignations range from this particular project and Google’s ethical boundaries or the lack of and “broader worries about Google’s political decisions”.
Googlers are worried this could hamper trust with users. A number of employees who have resigned have written the account of their stories and they’ve been gathered and shared in an internal document. Some of the employees shared concerns with Gizmodo pointing that the top executives have progressively turned less transparent in sharing “controversial business decisions” with the workforce at the company. They’ve also turned less keen on hearing out the objections raised by the workers in the company which is a contrast from the situation earlier.
Some of them believe that in case of Project Maven, humans and not machines should be responsible for doing such “sensitive and potentially lethal work” instead of leaving it to a machine learning algorithm. They also added that it is not Google’s place to get involved with military and its work. The increasing lack of transparency and lack of interest in paying heed to what workers have to say about product decisions have decreased that “ best company to work at” with one sharing that he couldn’t recommend people to join the company.
This is not the first time when employees have expressed their displeasure at company policies. Back in 2015, a majority of company employees and Blogger users pushed the company to reverse its ban on sexually explicit content that was posted on the blogging platform. But, this is the first time where a number of employees are actually resigning. The report pointed that apart from the resignations, about 4000 employees expressed their displeasure in the form of an internal petition that asked the company to cancel the project with a policy to not take any military work in the future.
Though, all this has resulted in little to almost no change in the company’s stance. The company has defended the project and claims that it will only provide “open-source software to Project Maven”. This means that the company does not really have to provide any technical support or ask for payments and the military can use the software. The company has held a number of sessions to debate and discuss the project with Google Cloud CEO Diane Greene supporting the project.
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Google’s defense has not helped the company earn any good-will in the company as employees maintain that it is not a startup that desperately needs clients. They claim that “it makes sense for Google and Google’s reputation to stay out of that.” Its been almost three months since the employees first got to know about Project Maven. At that time, the company claimed that it was busy in drafting a set of safeguards and policies around the use of machine learning and AI in the company. It promised employees an update regarding the progress in drafting the policy “within a few weeks”. The company has not issued an update and employees state that the company should have addressed the issues before they entered the contract.
The interesting thing is that the call to leave the contract on Project Maven has not been limited to employees working with Google. Instead, “Tech Workers Coalition” launched a petition demanding the company to stop the work last month. The petition also asked other technology giants such as Amazon and IBM to stop working with the Defense Department.
This is not all as International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC) issued an open letter in support of Google employees and other tech workers in the industry. This open letter asked Google to close Project Maven and called for an international treaty that would stop any company or country from making “autonomous weapons systems”. To add to the irony, one of the authors of the letter is an ex-Google employee. Google has not issued any official statement at the time of writing about either the resignations or the open letter.