The U.S. Government Is Analyzing Drone Footage With Google’s AI

March 13, 2018 - 4 minutes read

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Both Google and artificial intelligence (AI) have generated their fair share of controversy. But because of a recent discovery, there’s been no shortage of drama for the “AI-first” tech titan: the US military is utilizing the tech giant’s AI technology for one of its drone programs.

Giving Humans a Helping Hand

Drone developers, wouldn’t it be awesome if you could have your recorded footage analyzed by AI? The US Department of Defense (DoD) thinks so. That’s why they’re using Google’s machine learning framework, TensorFlow, to accomplish this exact feat in Project Maven, an initiative to transform the massive amounts of data available to the DoD into actionable insights.

Project Maven is using Google’s AI to analyze mountains of US drone footage to detect and flag any objects of interest that a human analyst can review later. Previous AI endeavors by Project Maven have been used against ISIS; in fact, utilizing AI for combat intelligence is the main focus of the program. Project Maven makes up a big chunk of the $7.4 billion that the DoD is spending on AI and data processing.

All About Optimization

The government program is intent on capitalizing on any available optimizations that AI can bring. “People and computer will work symbiotically to increase the ability of weapon systems to detect objects,” explains Drew Cukor, the chief of the DoD’s Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Function Team. “Eventually, we hope that one analyst will be able to do twice as much work, potentially three times as much as they’re doing now. That’s our goal.”

The media frenzy surrounding this story elicited an explanation from a Google representative: “This specific project is a pilot with the [DoD], to provide open source TensorFlow APIs that can assist in object recognition on unclassified data. The technology flags images for human review, and is for non-offensive uses only.”

A Point of Contention at Google

Tech companies working with the government is no unique occurrence. Besides Google, Seattle developer giants and cloud providers Microsoft and Amazon are both long-time partners with government agencies. But this collaboration has caused as much controversy in Google’s offices as it has outside of them. Escalating beyond debate, many Google employees have voiced their outrage upon hearing this news.

Google was quick to address this discontent: “Military use of machine learning naturally raises valid concerns. We’re actively discussing this important topic internally and with others as we continue to develop policies and safeguards around the development and use of our machine learning technologies.”

Many issues in the past have raised eyebrows at Googe. But because this time publicly includes quite a few of their own employees, it’s a different situation from before. As tech giants like Google continue to innovate and produce new disruptive technologies, it should really come as no surprise that governments would want to employ it. It’s a topic that we’ll have to all start thinking about more, especially the companies and their employees.

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