November 16, 2021 9:41:16 am
Written by Kate Conger and Daisuke Wakabayashi
Google executives told employees last week in a companywide meeting that it is interested in a Pentagon contract for cloud computing and that working for the military would not necessarily conflict with principles created by the company for how its artificial intelligence technology would be used.
Google is pursuing the contract three years after an employee revolt forced the company to abandon work on a Pentagon program that used artificial intelligence and to establish new guidelines against using AI for weapons or surveillance.
The pursuit potentially sets up another clash between company leaders and employees. Google’s cloud unit prioritized preparation for a bid on a Pentagon contract, The New York Times revealed this month, pulling engineers off other projects to focus on creating a winning proposal.
The rush to pursue the contract is a dramatic shift for Google, which said in 2018 that it would not bid on a major cloud computing contract with the Defense Department, known as the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI, because the work would conflict with its AI principles.
The JEDI cloud computing contract, estimated to be worth $10 billion over 10 years, was awarded to Microsoft in 2019. But facing legal challenges from Amazon, the Pentagon scrapped the contract in July and announced a new plan to purchase cloud computing technology. The new version of the contract, known as the Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability, will split the work among multiple companies.
The segmented nature of the contract allows Google to work on parts of the Pentagon cloud without violating its ban on weapons, Google executives told employees in the videoconference meeting Thursday, a recording of which was obtained by the Times.
The exact scope of the work is still unclear because the government has not submitted a formal request for proposal. Although it has not been invited to bid, Google has said it is interested.
In a blog post published the same day as the meeting, Thomas Kurian, who oversees the company’s cloud unit, wrote: “If we are invited to be part of the JWCC contract, we will absolutely bid.”
At the meeting, Kurian said there are many areas in which Google’s capabilities and expertise can be applied “with no conflict to Google’s AI principles.”
“We have governance processes that provide guidance and oversight into what AI products we will offer and what custom AI projects we will and we will not pursue, and we will follow those governance processes,” he said.
Kurian’s remarks, which were reported earlier by CNBC, were made in response to a question from an employee about Google’s interest in the Pentagon contract and the Times’ reporting on it.
“We understand that not every Googler will agree with this decision, but we believe Google Cloud should seek to serve the government where it is capable of doing so and where the work meets Google’s AI principles and our company’s values,” Kurian said.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai echoed his remarks. “I think we are strongly committed to working with the government in a way that’s consistent with our AI principles,” Pichai said.
A spokesperson for Google declined to comment.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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