Sunday, September 9, 2018

Google's Moral Dilemma

Last week, Twitter and Facebook sent senior executives to testify before a Congressional committee. Google demurred, offering only to send a lower level official. While the executives who were present addressed issues ranging from Russian collusion to privacy concerns… Google, had it been represented, would have had to deal with another, potentially more thorny issue. It recently canceled Project Maven, a program that would have helped the U. S. military to use artificial intelligence to make better battlefield decisions.

Google employees thought that working for the United State military was beyond the pale. So much for patriotism. Shouldn’t they have to answer for it in public?

On the other side of the Pacific Ocean Google has been developing a specialized search engine for China, one that would censor  unwanted content.

Sarah Sewall addressed Google’s moral dilemma in the Washington Post. Sewall is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Before arriving at SAIS she worked for the State Department under the Obama administration. One can only wonder why patriotic Republican officials have been so silent about this issue. If football players can be called out for their lack of patriotism when they fail to respect the National Anthem, why can’t these officials call out Google when it unilaterally cancels a contract that would have improved America’s national defense.

Sewall explains the moral dilemma:

Google recently pledged to stop using its technology to sort and classify information for the U.S. military, citing employees’ ethical concerns. Then the news broke that the company was quietly developing a censored search engine for China. The principles guiding Google’s use of artificial intelligence still hark back to its original mantra, “Don’t be evil” — but which of the two projects poses the greater evil?

The AI programs would have rendered military targeting more efficient. It would have enabled the military to avoid civilian targets. What could be wrong with that?

Sewall continues:

Technology can more quickly process the sheer mass of data that surveillance platforms collect and more efficiently learn to identify objects and patterns. Project Maven harnesses machine learning to provide more accurate information for military review. To be sure, more accurate information enables weapons and warfare in general, so pacifists predictably will object. Yet unless we believe that the United States should not be able to fight a war at all, we presumably want to help minimize unintended harm. Better information cannot guarantee the protection of civilians, but it can help avoid the kinds of problems we documented in Afghanistan. There is a plausible ethical case for working on Project Maven.

And, isn’t that the implied point. The Googlers are going to make it more difficult for America to fight a war. Do they really believe that America should never fight wars? If so, whose side are they on?

Perhaps they consider themselves to be citizens of the world. They appear to have no real sense of loyalty to the United States.

Sewall explains:

Perhaps powerful private actors have no ethical or political responsibilities to their nations of origin. Yet even if they do not, should they nonetheless have a moral — or even self-interested — view about sustaining democratic political systems and values?

What a terrific irony it would be if companies forged from abundant U.S. freedom and claiming to promote individualism and openness ultimately helped the Chinese Communist Party consolidate power internally and globally. In the long run, the global stage and the arc of history must be important ethical considerations, and they may also be the key to any ethical company’s survival.

Points well taken. Why have these actions been greeted with so much silence?

[To correct myself... it happens so rarely... The Hill reports that Congress is showing interest in Google' relationship with China, and also, in the case of Sen. Tom Cotton, in its refusal to work with the Defense Dept.]


trigger warning said...

Personally, I'm delighted Google will no longer be the prime contractor for this important application. For the exact same reason I'm delighted an Iranian, Turkish, or Chinese company is not the prime contractor.

Be careful what you wish for.

Leo G said...

To quote Glen Reynolds, "Skynet frowned"