Defense Department Is Using Google's AI Tech to Help With Drone Surveillance

Isaac Cain
March 8, 2018

Google's TensorFlow AI systems are being used by the US Department of Defense's (DoD) Project Maven, which was established in July a year ago to use machine learning and artificial intelligence to analyse the vast amount of footage shot by US drones.

The deal is part of the Defense Department's Project Maven initiative to use technology and automation to sift through huge amounts of data, according to tech publication Gizmodo, which reported on the partnership on Tuesday.

The project was launched past year, with USA officials saying it was to "accelerate [Department of Defence's] integration of big data and machine learning".

Google's involvement in the project was not public but, apparently, internal discussion at Google, about it leaked last week.

The Google spokesperson added: "The technology flags images for human review, and is for non-offensive uses only". The sides Gizmodo noted that the newsletter had raised an important question about the ethics of developing and using machine learning.

Reassurances aside, news that Google is working with the DoD to improve drone object recognition is likely to anger privacy advocates, as well as those concerned with military adoption of machine learning technology, something that Google has acknowledged.

Known as Project Maven, the objective of the program (at least, from Google's side) is to train the US drones to identify specific objects in drone footage; this is where Google's TensorFlow comes in. "There's a general concern in the tech community of somehow the military-industrial complex using their stuff to kill people incorrectly", he said. TensorFlow is a framework used by Google for machine learning and neural networks.

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Few details are clear over exactly how involved Google is.

The Defence Department set an aggressive timeline for Maven - the project was expected to be up and running just six months after it was founded, and reportedly has been deployed in the fight against the Islamic State since December.

The feature is part of a recent Pentagon contract involving Google's cloud unit, which is trying to wrest more government spending from cloud-computing leaders Inc. and Microsoft Corp.

Data became so numerous that analysts Department is physically not able to check. Drew Cukor, chief of the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Function Team, said at a defense tech summit previous year.

"The only way to do that is with commercial partners alongside us".

Google's involvement in Project Maven can be seen as unsurprising, especially considering Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google's parent company, Alphabet, is also the chairman of the Defense Innovation Board.

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