- In one of the first on-the-record interviews with one of the Googlers who resigned to protest the company’s contract with the Department of Defense, Tyler Breisacher tells Business Insider why he has no regrets.
- But Breisacher said he isn’t popping the champagne yet. Google is expected to publish ethical principles on working with artificial intelligence and the devil will be in the details.
- The 30-year-old software engineer says Project Maven is consistent with a shift in thinking within Google’s management. He believes the company’s values have changed.
On April 20, Tyler Breisacher walked out of Google for the last time, ending his more than six-year relationship with the company. In an exclusive interview with Business Insider, he said that on that day he was a little emotional, but comforted by the fact that he was leaving for the right reasons.
Breisacher, a Google software developer who worked on Google’s Closure Compiler, resigned in part to protest the company’s involvement in Project Maven — the controversial collaboration between Google and the US Department of Defense. In March, word got out that Google had quietly supplied artificial intelligence technology to the Pentagon to help analyze drone video footage.
In April, more than 4,000 workers signed a petition demanding that Google’s management cease work on Project Maven and promise to never again “build warfare technology.” Soon after that, Gizmodo reported that a dozen or so Google employees had resigned in protest. Breisacher was among that group, he says.
The internal dissent and the negative press forced Google to backtrack, and the company reportedly told staff on Friday that it would not renew the Project Maven contract when it runs out next year.
Does Breisacher feel he and the other protesters triumphed?
Breisacher says he won’t uncork any champagne bottles until he sees the list of ethical principles Google is expected to publish this week which will lay out its policies towards AI work.
“I think this is the best outcome as far this contract is concerned,” said Breisacher, 30, in his first on-the-record interview since quitting. “This is obviously a big deal and it’s very encouraging but this only happened after months and months of people signing petitions and (internal debate) and people quitting.”
And while many expect Google to forswear military work in the published AI principles, Breisacher worries that the company may leave itself some wiggle room that could lead to future instances of problematic AI projects.
Google is leaving billions of dollars on the table, but some Googlers feel betrayed
The revelation about Google’s involvement with Maven and the subsequent internal strife because of it has embarrassed the company. In addition, Google now appears to have taken itself out of the competition for cloud contracts offered by the Department of Defense — worth tens of billions of dollars.
A Google spokesperson has not responded to repeated requests for comment, and the company’s reasons for backtracking on Maven remain unclear. Certainly, the resignations of a dozen employees or the signatures of 4,000 workers on a petition is not going to impact the operations of the internet giant, which employs some 80,000 workers across the globe.
But it’s hard to deny that the employees who opposed Google’s involvement in Project Maven made their presence felt. In addition to the petition, and the resignations, it can’t be overlooked that someone inside the company leaked internal documents and emails to the media that helped reveal the information about Google’s military involvement to the public.
On Friday, Gizmodo reported that it had reviewed emails that showed Google had far greater ambitions to work with the US military and intelligence than managers had previously let on.
“The emails also show,” wrote Gizmodo reporter Kate Conger, “that Google and its partners worked extensively to develop machine learning algorithms for the Pentagon with the goal of creating a sophisticated system that could surveil entire cities.”
This is the kind of revelation that has some Google employees feeling betrayed, said Breisacher. In their eyes, Google once stood for a set of values that didn’t include helping nations wage war.
Maven was the final straw
Project Maven is just another sign that reflects fundamental shifts in the thinking within Google’s management, according to Breisacher. He said he had thought about leaving Google long before Maven came to light.
As a gay man, Breisacher became disheartened that Google decided to sponsor CPAC, a conservative conference that is also sponsored by the National Rifle Association and the Koch Institute and other groups that Breisacher believes are hostile to gays. Then last year, videos related to to LGBT issues were flagged as inappropriate on YouTube. The video-sharing service said it was an error but the issue didn’t go away and Breisacher didn’t think the company responded with the necessary urgency.
“When I started, Google had a reputation as a pro-gay, pro-trans company,” said. “I guess I’m disillusioned. I know that Google is a “for profit company and you shouldn’t expect it to do things purely for the good of the world. But in the past, we would expect leaders to listen to the employees and to think carefully about issues and not to cross certain lines…things have changed at Google.”
Does he see any way for Google to save its soul?
Breisacher says maybe but that this question may not be the most relevant. He says what may be most important about Google’s backtracking is that it shows employees have power.
“At Google, we had this ‘Don’t be evil,’ that people believe we have to live up to,” Breisacher said “I don’t know if it’s as easy to take a stand on issues at other companies but I hope the takeaway for employees at Microsoft or Amazon and the other companies is that they realize they have the power to collectively demand things… to change things.”
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