Google, in a somewhat uncharacteristic move, has tenuously taken the first step in equipping the Department of Defense (DoD) with artificial intelligence (AI) technology for use in intelligence gathering.1

The U.S. government, already a substantial cloud user, is looking to the corporate technology sector for new systems and leaders in AI to partner with in an effort to better analyze gathered data.2 An appropriation of $7.4 billion has been designated for data processing and AI by the DoD3, and Google-competitors Amazon and Microsoft are engaging with the DoD and reaping financial profits. Though Google has previously been sensitive about involvement with the military, its attitude internally seems to conflict with its need to compete for cloud business.4

Recently, Google joined the DoD’s Maven pilot project. Maven’s mission is to “accelerate DoD’s integration of big data and machine learning.”5  A glut of drone video footage collected daily by the Pentagon has been impossible for human analysts to process.6 Maven was tasked with using machine learning to detect and identify thirty-eight categories of objects. Google’s TensorFlow APIs help detect objects in images and flag them for human review.7  Google’s hesitancy to be involved in combat issues has been ameliorated by the fact that its current product offerings limit its access to sensitive government data, because, unlike its competitors, Amazon and Microsoft Azure, Google does not have cloud products designed to hold information classified as “secret.”8 The lack of those products limits its participation and growth.

While Google struggles to develop policies and safeguards to allow it to further engage in the development and use of its machine learning technologies for the military, the defense department has said that it is undertaking “a competitive selection process to find vendors that can provide algorithms against DoD data.”9 Ultimately, Google must decide either to embrace the profitability of the military marketplace for its AI business or choose to keep its powerful AI technology removed from military deployment.