During a Senate Armed Services Committee meeting this week, General Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was deliberately pointed in his criticism of Google’s engagements in China, accusing the company of supporting the regime in Beijing counter to U.S. interests. “The work that Google is doing in China,” he told senators, “is indirectly benefiting the Chinese military.”
The U.S. Defense Department and the country’s more hawkish politicians are irritated that Google has seemingly pulled back from working on U.S. defense projects, withdrawing AI and cloud expertise from the frontline. This includes the decision to pull out of both Project Maven, following an internal employee backlash, and the competition for the Pentagon’s JEDI cloud-computing contract, valued at as much as $10 billion over ten years.
“Look, we’re the good guys,” General Dunford added, “the system that we represent is the one that has allowed you to thrive. We watch with great concern when industry partners work in China knowing that there is that indirect benefit. and frankly indirect may not be a correct characterization of how it really is, it’s more of a direct benefit to the Chinese military.”
Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, speaking before the committee, supported the comments and added the issue of IP theft to military collaboration: “$5 trillion of their economy is state-owned enterprises. So the technology that has developed in the civil world transfers to the military world, it’s a direct pipeline. Not only is there a transfer, there is systemic theft of U.S. technology that facilitates even faster development of emerging technology.”
On the attack
Josh Hawley, the freshman senator from Missouri, who at 39-years-old is the youngest member of the U.S. Senate, went further: “Google, an American company based in this country, supposedly an American company, is doing work in China that directly or indirectly benefits the Chinese government at a time of increased peer competition.”
Hawley tweeted a video of General Dunford’s statement, writing: “Must watch video: Joint Chiefs Chairman says Google refuses to work with US military but provides “direct benefit” to China’s military.”
In his own statement at the hearing, also captured on the video, Hawley said: “We are in a struggle with the Chinese government over whether they are going to become a regional and maybe even a global hegemon with values very different from ours… values that do not favor freedom in the world. And we have an American company that does not want to do work with our Defense Department, which is one thing, but they’re happy to help the Chinese, at least the Chinese government that is, the Chinese military, at least indirectly, I think that’s just extraordinary.”
But is everything as it seems?
Ironically, Google’s headline AI defense withdrawal could be more complicated than it seems.
In an email obtained by the Intercept and published this month, Kent Walker, Google’s senior vice president for global affairs, wrote: “Last June, we announced we would not be renewing our image-recognition contract with the US Department of Defense connected with Project Maven,” but an unnamed company will take an “off-the-shelf Google Cloud Platform (basic compute service, rather than Cloud AI or other Cloud Services) to support some workloads.”
“DARPA has been investing for about 56 of our 61 years in AI,” DARPA Director Steve Walker told Defense News. “We’re even working with Google,” albeit this was qualified to be a focus on defensive rather than. offensive AI.
The entirety of Big Tech struggles with how to engage in China. It is essentially too big to ignore, yet too complex to easily engage. Google has apparently shied away from a Chinese search engine to fit the country’s censorship regime, although reports last year suggested that such a product was in advanced development and that only negative PR caused the company to hit pause.
In December, the company sought to close down further speculation, confirming that the project was closed: “As we’ve said for many months, we have no plans to launch Search in China and there is no work being undertaken on such a project. Team members have moved to new projects.”
“It’s inexplicable to me,” General Dunford said at an event that same month, “that we would make compromises in order to advance our business interests in China where we know that freedoms are restrained, where we know that China will take intellectual property from [our technology] companies.”
On the defense
As regards this latest news, a Google spokesperson referred inquiries to CEO Sundar Pichai’s statement at a congressional hearing last year: “As an American company, we cherish the values and freedoms that have allowed us to grow and serve so many users. I am proud to say we do work, and we will continue to work, with the government to keep our country safe and secure.”
It isn’t only Google, of course. On Friday, Microsoft also came under fire again for the alleged (albeit categorically denied) inclusion of their AI in the surveillance program deployed in China’s Xinjiang province, where the Uighur population lives in something of a militaristic police state.
As the AI Cold War between the U.S. and China looms, one that will be fuelled by AI, you can expect this story to run and run.
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