Google will not compete for a $10 billion opportunity to build the Defense Department’s cloud-computing infrastructure, the company said Tuesday, saying the project could conflict with its corporate values regarding the use of artificial intelligence.
The contract, known as the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI for short, calls for a massive cloud-computing system that can handle classified U.S. military data and enable new defense capabilities. The competition has drawn interest from other major tech companies, including Amazon and Microsoft. Bids are due Oct. 12.
In a statement to The Washington Post, Google said it is dropping its bid for ethical reasons and because it lacked certain government certifications. The move was first reported by Bloomberg News.
“We are not bidding on the JEDI contract because first, we couldn’t be assured that it would align with our AI principles and second, we determined that there were portions of the contract that were out of scope with our current government certifications,” a Google representative said in the statement, adding that the company works with the U.S. government in many areas. “We will continue to pursue strategic work to help state, local and federal customers modernize their infrastructure and meet their mission critical requirements.”
Google is undergoing a broader reckoning over how the company’s artificial intelligence algorithms, which are some of the most advanced in the world, should be applied to the work of national defense. In early June, the company said it would drop out of a Defense Department project to apply its artificial intelligence to analyzing drone video when its contract expires next year. The move followed pressure from employees who objected to the company’s involvement in a controversial and long-standing drone war.
That program, known as Project Maven, is designed to automate the analysis of surveillance footage collected by U.S. military drones, a task that for years has been handled directly by the Air Force. But Google Cloud chief executive Diane Greene said at the time that the company could not control the military’s “downstream use” of the technology.
The company later said it would entirely ban the development of AI software that can be used in weapons systems and establish a new set of AI principles that would set limits on the company’s work moving forward. “We do believe that the uses of our cloud and AI will prove to be overwhelmingly positive for the world, and we also recognize that we cannot control all downstream uses of our technology,” Greene wrote.
The JEDI cloud contract would potentially have a much broader exposure to the Pentagon’s advanced weapons systems. The Pentagon has said it already operates individual clouds, many of them built in secret to enable classified military programs. Top Pentagon officials have said the JEDI contract would account for about 16 percent of the department’s overall cloud-computing work, subsuming many of the department’s own cloud efforts.
They have also said the JEDI cloud would be used as a springboard for not-yet-developed military systems. Whichever company wins could ultimately have little control over how the military uses its technology.
Developing the system “will revolutionize how we fight and win wars,” Defense Department chief information officer Dana Deasy said in a recent interview.
Google’s decision to drop out of Project Maven sparked a backlash in Washington at an inopportune time for the company as it tries to expand its business with the federal government. Last week Google chief executive Sundar Pichai met with top defense officials to try to ease tensions.
For some, the decision was a reminder of the vast cultural divide between the Beltway government contractors accustomed to doing business with the Pentagon and the Silicon Valley tech firms that are increasingly at the forefront of innovations in artificial intelligence.
“At most of the major defense contractors' front offices you’ll see American flags . . . you don’t really see that at Google,” William Schneider Jr., a former Reagan administration acquisitions official who’s a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, said in a panel discussion funded by Microsoft and Oracle. “You may see a place to recharge your Fitbit but nothing to indicate the sort of patriotic identity that the rest of the defense contractors have.”
In its statement on the JEDI bid, Google joined a chorus of commercial technology companies in criticizing the Pentagon’s decision to award the contract to a single vendor, saying that a “multi-cloud” approach would have allowed the department to better match different solutions to different workloads. IBM, Microsoft and Oracle have sharply criticized the Pentagon’s approach and even mounted lawsuits seeking to overturn it, arguing that the project is unfairly tilted in Amazon.com’s favor.
Amazon and Microsoft are the industry’s cloud market leaders. Competitors are worried that Amazon has an inside track to the JEDI award because it has been the CIA’s primary cloud provider for years and because the Pentagon’s request for proposals includes highly specific requirements that only Amazon is likely to meet. (Amazon chief executive and founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Post.)
Amazon has said it prefers the single-cloud approach for the JEDI contract.
“Had the JEDI contract been open to multiple vendors, we would have submitted a compelling solution for portions of it,” a Google representative said. “At a time when new technology is constantly becoming available, customers should have the ability to take advantage of that innovation.”