When the Pentagon asked Google to build a tool to identify objects in drone footage quietly, it found a developing worker revolt against explicitly making weapons.
Project Maven launched in April 2017 with the goal of processing video taken by drones. The program was to identify and tag objects in the videos using algorithms; those tags would play helpful for troops picking targets.
With this program, the military could process thousands of unwatched hours of video collected by drones. If it works properly, the information gathered would better help officials make life or death decisions.
Silicon Valley helping Pentagon raised some question. In March 2018, Google employees raised objections to the project. They later came out with a public letter asserting that Google should not be building “this technology to assist the US Government in military surveillance — and potentially lethal outcomes.”
Due to the letter and the resignations of multiple employees, Google announced it would not renew its contract with the government and published a set of principles for using and developing artificial intelligence. Google still maintains military agreements; however, Project Maven acts as a cautionary tale about applying commercial code to military ends.
Automated Target Recognition
In 2015, academic researchers demonstrated that computers are better at labeling objects than humans. This test intrigued the military enough to want to expand the technology.
“As far as the Department of Defense was concerned, that was an important day,” said former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work.
A year before Maven got initiated, the Air Force Research Lab signed a contract for the VIGILANT program. Details were disclosed in October 2021 as a Freedom of Information Act request.
The 2016 contract for VIGILANT focused on satellite footage. It would release “both the framework and the analytics as open-source,” enabling its use by organizations outside of government.
Maven and VIGILANT were about using AI to quicken the time it takes to gather data. In May 2017, John Shanahan, an Air Force lieutenant general overseeing a range of emerging tech acquisitions, said that the goal of Maven was to clean up video, “finding the juicy parts where there’s activity and then labeling the data.”
“Project Maven focuses on computer vision — an aspect of machine learning and deep learning — that autonomously extracts objects of interest from moving or still imagery,” said Col. Drew Cukor, head of the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Function team.
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