The Pentagon wants to bring the same low-cost drone technology behind aerial wedding photos or extreme skiing videos to the battlefield. But it needs the private sector’s help to do so at a time of rising tension between Silicon Valley and Washington.
Defense officials hope the new initiative, dubbed “Project Phoenix,” will help jump-start cooperation with the tech industry, which has been grappling with a groundswell of moral objections to the use — or potential misuse — of their innovations for warfare.
But the Pentagon wants to convert the disbelievers. Orin Hoffman, who is running Project Phoenix, called on companies — especially tech start-ups — to submit proposals for drone technology that is so inexpensive that troops can spy on enemies without worrying about damaging or losing the drones. The Defense Innovation Unit is reviewing proposals for physical drones as well as software that would produce 3-D maps or allow the drones to fly indoors.
Consumer drones “bring great capability not just for filming you doing extreme sports, but also for battlefield surveillance and reconnaissance,” Hoffman tells me in an exclusive interview, the first time DIU has commented publicly on the new drone initiative. “You now have under $1,000 drones that are capable of fully autonomous flight through a battle space which 10 years ago was really reserved for only very expensive DoD assets.”
But winning hearts and minds in Silicon Valley is a challenge: The new initiative comes after Google said it would pull out of a major contract with the Pentagon for an artificial intelligence program meant to analyze drone video, amid resounding ethical objections from its employees. The backlash creates a challenge for DIU, whose overall mission is to improve collaboration with the tech industry and bring cutting-edge innovations to the U.S. military.
Defense leaders recognize the Pentagon needs to do a better job this time convincing Silicon Valley that deploying their technology for war can be a good thing that keeps Americans safe.
“We didn’t do enough as the U.S. government and the Defense Department in articulating what are the stakes of not supporting the military,” DIU's managing director, Mike Brown, told me.
Those stakes in this case, according to these defense leaders, are high: U.S. troops have been “caught flat-footed” by adversaries throughout the Middle East sending cheap yet capable drones for surveillance of military movements — and even using them to drop small bombs. And other powers such as China are investing heavily in drone technology; Chinese tech company DJI is the king of the consumer drone market worldwide.
Brown compared the military’s technology race against China to the Cold War arms race against the Soviet Union. “If we’re not accessing what’s happening commercially in areas like artificial intelligence or what’s happening in drones, we’re not providing competitive capability for the military,” Brown said.
But here’s the rub: A lot of U.S. tech companies want to do business with China.
Peter Singer, a strategist at the New America think tank, said Silicon Valley companies’ concerns about working with the Pentagon go beyond ethics. “Reluctance in the Valley is not just queasiness with war or the like,” Singer said. “The China market is key to many of these companies’ future growth.”
Google has confirmed it is exploring a censored search engine for China, stoking concerns that its technology will enable the Chinese government to carry out human rights abuses. Google's employees are also worried: More than 400 of them signed a public letter last week protesting the project.
All this has left lawmakers questioning why Google would return to the Chinese market while simultaneously pulling back from business with the Pentagon. They are virtually sure to press Google chief executive Sundar Pichai on this issue when they reschedule the hearing that was postponed this week due to President George H.W. Bush's funeral.
Pichai has tried to smooth over tensions with military leaders, meeting with Pentagon officials during a September trip to Washington. But he's walking a fine line trying to balance his employees' concerns in a competitive job market with the desire to go after lucrative government contracts.
As my colleagues Tony Romm and Drew Harwell have reported: “Google’s change of heart over Project Maven . . . has become a key source of tension between the tech giant and military officials, who felt that Google should have done a better job communicating that the technology could help keep military personnel out of harm’s way, according to a source familiar with the work. ‘Without a doubt, this has caused a lot of consternation inside the DoD,’ said Bob Work, the former deputy secretary of defense who helped launch Project Maven last year. ‘Google created a big moral hazard for itself by saying it doesn’t want to use any of its AI technology to take human life. But they didn’t say anything about the lives that could be saved.’ ”
Still, some competitors, such as Amazon, have responded with promises to continue to work with the Pentagon. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)
Brown hopes that collaboration will be easier for Project Phoenix. Companies that are developing drone technology probably have considered the potential government and military applications for their technology — versus a company such as Google with roots as a search engine. Despite the Project Maven uproar, Brown stressed that DIU still receives many proposals from companies eager to work with the Pentagon. He said many companies view the partnership as patriotic.
Also in the Pentagon’s favor here, drone technology could come from smaller, nontraditional companies that might have a different set of priorities — and fewer employees — than a behemoth such as Google. And after all, DIU started under the Obama administration to help nontraditional companies such as start-ups navigate the complicated process of doing business with the government.
Major players such as Google “are trying to sell so much overseas and take advantage of the market in China that it gives them a different set of concerns than a smaller company that has a more focused business,” Brown said.
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BITS: Add retaining talent to the growing list of challenges Facebook is confronting as the social networking giant grapples with multiple scandals. CNBC's Salvador Rodriguez reports that six former Facebook employees have received a growing number of phone calls in the past two months from current Facebook staffers inquiring about work opportunities or seeking job references. “One former Facebook engineer said he has been contacted by about a dozen Facebook employees since leaving the company this summer, saying they were thinking about leaving the company or inquiring what his experience has been like since his own departure,” Rodriguez wrote.
While Rodriguez notes “there's no firm data showing a significant uptick in departures or employee dissatisfaction” so far, the change is notable because the tech giant “had long been known around Silicon Valley as the company that no one leaves." Here's how a former Facebook director summed up the situation: “Once it becomes weird to tell people that they work at Facebook, or once their moms aren't proud of them anymore, that's when people are going to head to the exits,” he said, as quoted by Rodriguez. “I think we're already getting there.”
"...the company categorizes departing employees under one of two tags: 'regrettable' or 'non-regrettable'." https://t.co/VyD5TGikLL— Deepa Seetharaman (@dseetharaman) December 3, 2018
NIBBLES: There is a way the United States could hamper China's technological ambitions amid trade tensions between both countries, and it involves semiconductors. “While the two sides agreed [to] a temporary truce over the weekend, Washington plans to ramp up export controls next year on so-called foundational technologies — those that can enable development in a broad range of sectors — and the equipment for manufacturing chips is one of the key target areas under discussion,” the Financial Times's Emily Feng and Kathrin Hille reported. “The $412bn global semiconductor industry rests on the shoulders of just six equipment companies, three of them US-based. Together, the companies make nearly all of the crucial hardware and software tools needed to manufacture chips, meaning an American export ban would choke off China’s access to the basic tools needed to make their latest chip designs.”
The Financial Times also reported that should they face American export controls, “Chinese-owned plants could continue producing lower-end semiconductors, such as analogue chips, used in everything from industrial robots to electric vehicles. Out of reach in the medium term would be making the most advanced chips able to support AI functions or 5G telecommunication networks.”
BYTES: Tumblr announced it will ban nearly all nudity from its site at a time when technology companies are wrestling with the role they should play in policing content on their platforms, my colleague Eli Rosenberg reports. The company did not say what prompted the decision, but Eli noted the change came just weeks after Tumblr was removed from the Apple App Store due to child pornography, raising questions about whether the policy change was related.
Effective Dec. 17, the company will use algorithms to flag and delete images that violate its stricter policy, which has few exceptions, such as for art or breast-feeding. Tumblr has long had a more lax policy toward adult content compared to other social networks, such as Facebook. “We’ve given serious thought to who we want to be to our community moving forward,” CEO Jeff D’Onofrio said in a blog post. “We’ve realized that in order to continue to fulfill our promise and place in culture, especially as it evolves, we must change.”
— Microsoft plans to bring broadband Internet access to 3 million Americans living in rural areas by July 2022, Microsoft President Brad Smith said in a blog post. As part of the project, Microsoft aims to expand its Airband Initiative to additional states such as California, Indiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, according to a news release from the company. The goal is to reach 25 states by the end of next year.
“Without a proper broadband connection, these communities can’t start or run a modern business, access telemedicine, take an online class, digitally transform their farm, or research a school project online,” Smith said. “You see this dilemma play out in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics employment data, which shows the highest unemployment rates are frequently located in the counties with the lowest availability of broadband. As a nation, we can’t afford to turn our backs on these communities as we head into the future.”
— More technology news from the private sector:
— The United States must develop a national artificial intelligence strategy to maintain its dominance in the field over foreign competitors such as China, Britain and France, according to a report released today by the Center for Data Innovation, a nonpartisan think tank. A national strategy would help “bolster U.S. competitiveness, strengthen national security, and maximize the societal benefits that the country could derive from AI,” Joshua New, senior policy analyst at the think tank, wrote in the report. The think tank is set to present the report today on Capitol Hill.
— An algorithm may soon attempt to predict if travelers at foreign airports represent a threat under a new Department of Homeland Security program, according to the Intercept's Sam Biddle. “DataRobot, a northern Virginia-based automated machine learning firm, won a contract from the department to develop ‘predictive models to enhance identification of high risk passengers’ in software that should ‘make real-time prediction[s] with a reasonable response time’ of less than one second, according to a technical overview that was written for potential contractors and reviewed by The Intercept,” Biddle wrote. “The contract assumes the software will produce false positives and requires that the terrorist-predicting algorithm’s accuracy should increase when confronted with such mistakes.”
— More technology news from the public sector:
—Tech news generating buzz around the Web:
— “Uber Technologies Inc on Monday confirmed it hired a senior U.S. auto safety official involved in the federal government’s handling of self-driving cars for its autonomous vehicle efforts,” Reuters's David Shepardson reported. “Nat Beuse, a long-time official at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) overseeing vehicle safety research, is the latest federal official to join the private sector’s effort to commercialize self-driving vehicles.”
- The Center for Data Innovation presents a report calling for a national AI strategy on Capitol Hill.
- Top AI experts meet in Montreal at the Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems all week.
- Snapchat Chief Executive Evan Spiegel joins Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and Danah Boyd of the Microsoft Research Institute at the Newseum for a New York Times event.
- CEOs from Walmart, The Boeing Company, IBM , AT&T Inc. and other top companies are speaking at a CEO Innovation Summit with Ivanka Trump and Senator Mark Warner at The Anthem in Washington.
- Executives from Microsoft, Google, Qualcomm and Oracle visit the White House for a roundtable discussion on innovation
- Microsoft President Brad Smith participates in a discussion on facial recognition at the Brookings Institution
Delta Air Lines debuted the United States’s first facial recognition terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport:
George H.W. Bush's legacy honored at U.S. Capitol:
Michelle Obama talks to London girls about 'impostor syndrome”: