Google withdraws from Pentagon artificial intelligence project over privacy concerns

Microsoft decided not to compete for a $10bn Pentagon program because it might violate its antitrust philosophy.

The department of defense announced in late April that it would begin to use artificial intelligence, including machine learning, on everything from combat drones to space weather forecasts.

Now, Google has announced that it would not be part of the programme despite the fact that the project involves big tech companies, most notably Microsoft.

“No company, but one in particular, which I won’t name here, has stated publicly what exactly they’re planning to do with the data involved,” the Defense Department’s assistant secretary for research and engineering told the Wall Street Journal in a story published on Wednesday.

The search giant said it would decline the contract because some of the technology it planned to use would be derived from open source products.

Google parent company Alphabet Inc. owns a wide range of publicly traded companies that might have lower ethical standards than its own operation – including Uber, Waymo, and DropBox, according to the Journal.

“We think we could be more helpful,” David Resnick, executive vice president and general counsel for Google, said in a Google+ post.

“We hope our openness in ways that are good for our community will be more visible through our participation in this programme.”

Mr Resnick also tweeted that “in the US there is a well-settled principle that ensures fair play. We must continue to be vigilant against anti-competitive behaviour.”

The Pentagon’s Artificial Intelligence Revolution in Defense (AeroDAR) Program includes outsourcing other areas of government contracting to firms including Amazon and Microsoft.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Pentagon expected Google to provide the necessary access for its computers to access the proprietary military software – thought to have been in the billions of dollars.

Some industry experts say they see Google as courting Google+.

After Donald Trump launched his “fire and fury” military threats against North Korea, Google’s algorithm was taken to task by some Twitter users for showing an embarrassing spike in searches for “North Korea” and “duckface”.

Google says it is still talking to the Pentagon about partnering on future projects.

It is unclear whether this includes the or Google Searches for US military advice.

A spokesperson for Google did not comment when asked if these two would stay online.

The company’s cooperation with the Pentagon has drawn outrage from some quarters.

Michael Macleod-Ball, a computer science professor at the University of Texas, told the Wall Street Journal that the agreement could run into antitrust issues.

“This program appears to us to run afoul of AT&T’s anti-competition principles,” he said.

“There’s no competition and every company whose algorithms are being used by US military can copy or modify them.”

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has warned other firms that any company doing business with the Defense Department may be breaking the law if they use the military’s software on their own platforms without permission.

Earlier this year, Nvidia, the graphics processing unit maker, announced that it would not bid on the program out of concerns that doing so would violate its ethical principle of “following the money”.

“We’ve consistently argued against a defence vendor-centric business model that would hinder innovation and create friction for both public and private entities,” Mr Macleod-Ball told CNNMoney at the time.

The US’s Office of the Federal Trade Commission does not comment on specific cases, but a spokesman told the Journal that it had focused on the type of issues raised by Google.

Read more: Wall Street Journal

The UK Department for International Trade confirmed to the BBC on Thursday that it was aware of Google’s decision not to compete for the contract.

But it declined to comment further.

A spokeswoman told the BBC that the department was looking into the matter “in light of Google’s recent announcement”.

A spokesperson for Microsoft, a competitor to Google, said: “It is important to be clear on what AI really is: something that allows machines to keep pace with humans in learning and adapting to new situations.”

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