Google is famous as a fun-loving, freewheeling workplace, and outsiders might struggle to see why anyone would want to give up all the perks of having a job there. One group of employees has a very good reason, though: After calling on the company to drop a Department of Defense contract and getting no response, they’re choosing to resign in protest.
Their laudable decision brings up a larger crisis of conscience for the largely unregulated, “disruptive” Silicon Valley.
The story began earlier this year when more than 4,000 Google employees — including some senior engineers — signed a letter demanding that the company terminate a Pentagon contract they feared would be used for military applications. The project involved the application of artificial intelligence to analyze video images — technology that could potentially be used to guide drone strikes and increase their accuracy.
Employees maintained that Google should take a hardline stance on not contributing to the development of technologies that could be used as weapons of war, arguing that it goes against the company’s values. With Google’s internal strife in the news a lot lately, fears about what kinds of values the company wants to espouse are well-founded.
They also note that Google is experiencing some negative public relations surrounding issues of artificial intelligence and user data, which could even make it more challenging to recruit talented employees. The company’s “moral responsibility” in this situation, employees said, was clear — even though other tech companies also work with the military.
The employee letter highlights a growing tension for Silicon Valley companies and the larger tech industry. Government contracts — especially with the military — can be extremely profitable, and at times provide access to technologies that aren’t otherwise available. Collaborating with the government can boost revenues and give engineers a chance to work on cutting-edge, innovative projects, developing tools that will eventually make their way into civilian life.
But these contracts also involve producing tools that can be used to kill other human beings in military actions, or to engage in human rights violations, like harassing people attempting to cross the US border.
AI experts warn that there are serious risks to being involved in the production of such technology, and that tech companies like Google should think carefully before committing their resources to this kind of work. With technological advances happening so quickly, ethicists and businesses alike are struggling to develop guidelines and boundaries for conducting business in a mindful way.
With no clear moral compass, some companies are opting to dismiss these concerns. Others, like Google, are trying to have it both ways — accepting the contract and maintaining that they aren’t responsible for the ultimate use of the technology.
But employees who signed the petition didn’t feel this goes far enough — and for some, the issue was worth quitting over. Google staff members who spoke to Gizmodo noted that the company has a long history of encouraging employees to speak up, and that after feeling unheard, they concluded that resigning was the most appropriate choice.
Taking a moral stance is not always easy, but these brave engineers feel that it’s the right thing to do.