In a virtual testimony before congress Wednesday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai was grilled by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., over allegations of advancing China’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) capabilities after refusing to work with the U.S. military.
Google pulled out of an AI contract with the Department of Defense (DOD) in June 2018 after thousands of employees signed a petition addressed to Pichai, demanding that the company cease all involvement with the program known as Project Maven.
Project Maven was an AI effort to study imagery that could lead to improved technology surrounding drone strikes during open combat. Google cited concerns over ethical principles surrounding AI.
“Project Maven was a collaboration between Google and the DOD that Google pulled out of,” Gaetz said Wednesday.
“Did you weigh input from your employees when making the decision to abandon the project with the U.S. military?” Gaetz asked Pichai.
“We are deeply committed to supporting the military and U.S. government, we have taken several projects since then. We do take our employees input in account, but it’s one input, we make decisions on a variety of factors.”
But Gaetz pushed back on Google’s ethical choices, calling into question their work with China and pointing out that Google has an AI center, collaborates with Chinese universities and is helping China to advance the targeting capabilities of their J-20 fighter aircraft, according to a paper published by the Chinese Academy of Science.
“So why would an American company with American values so directly aid the Chinese military, but have ethical concerns about working along sides the U.S. military on Project Maven?” Gaetz asked Pichai Wednesday.
“And I understand your point about cyber security and those things, but Project Maven was a specific way to ensure that our troops are safe on the battlefield, and if you have no problem making the J-20 Chinese fighter more effective in its targeting, why wouldn’t you want to make America as effective?” Gaetz added.
“We are not working with the Chinese military, that’s absolutely false,” Pichai said, not addressing the accusation on their work specifically with the J-20 aircraft.
Gaetz also addressed comments from security officials and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel who called Google's work with China “treasonous.”
“The former Secretary of Defense Mr. Shanahan said that the lines have been 'blurred' in China between commercial and military application, and as Mr. Buck [Rep. Ken Buck, R- Co.] cited, ‘General Dunford says that your company is directly aiding the Chinese military.’ And Peter Theil, who actually serves on Mr. Zuckerberg’s board at Facebook, said that ‘Googles activities with China are treasonous.’ He accused you of treason. “
“I had a chance to meet with General Dunford personally, we have clarified what we do in China compared to our peers, it’s very, very limited in nature,” Pichai said, rejecting the accusation of treason.
“Our AI work in China is limited to a handful of people working on open source projects and happy to share and engage with the office to explain our work in china fully,” he added.
Gaetz summarized his accusations as his time was coming to an end and said, “When the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says that an American company is directly aiding China, when you have an AI center, when you’re working with universities … it seems to really call into question your commitment to our country and our values.”