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The Americans who participated in World War II are known as the greatest generation for their sense of duty to the country they love and the sacrifices they made to save the world from fascism. It appears that Google’s leadership doesn’t share their sense of duty or willingness to sacrifice for American values. Google’s refusal to develop AI capabilities for the U.S. military is a slap in the face to the heroes of the greatest generation who died in their defense of democratic ideals and perhaps something far worse—a concession to the Chinese government in order to facilitate the launch of Google’s project Dragonfly in the world’s largest market.
Some might think that’s unthinkable, but it wouldn’t be the first time an iconic American company acceded to the demands of an authoritarian government to make a buck. There are striking parallels between Google’s refusal to aid U.S. defense and the refusal of Ford Motor Company to supply war materials for Britain in World War II. Whatever his motivations, it appears Google’s chief executive officer, Sundar Pichai, has chosen to join Henry Ford on the wrong side of history.
The Arsenal Of Democracy
During the 1930s, the U.S. military and armaments industry was decimated by non-interventionist legislation and budget cuts prompted by disillusionment with American involvement in World War I and the Great Depression, respectively. The munition industry’s profit motive was blamed for the nation’s decision to enter the First World War and public support for the military ebbed dramatically. By the close of the 1930s, the U.S. Army had become smaller than Belgium’s—a country that Nazi Germany conquered in a mere 18 days—and most of its weaponry was outdated.
Though President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initially supported non-interventionist policies, the failure of appeasement to mollify Nazi Germany’s demands in the late 1930s led him to the realization that unilateral disarmament would not prevent Germany from igniting another war. By 1940, he had come to believe that “Hitler would not have dared to take the stand that he did” if U.S. military capacity had been at full strength in 1938. FDR realized the military would need the total support of America’s industrial leaders to build the forces necessary to defeat Germany’s modern military machine before it was too late.
The industry leaders FDR would ask for help were the same ones that many New Dealers had denounced as scoundrels and skunks, leaders who FDR believed were “unanimous in their hate for me.” Yet when FDR asked William Knudsen, the President of General Motors, to come to Washington and help marshal the nation’s industrial resources for war, Mr. Knudsen came. He came despite the admonition of GM’s chairman that the duty of Mr. Knudsen, a lifelong Republican, was “here with GM.” He came despite the fact that he was paid only a dollar-a-year by the government. Mr. Knudsen uprooted his family and went to Washington for a simple reason: “This country has been good to me, and I want to pay it back.”
Mr. Knudsen was not alone. When he called K.T. Keller, the head of Chrysler, for help, Mr. Keller said “sure” and went to work building tanks the very next day. And when FDR called on the people directly to help build the “arsenal of democracy” in one of his famous fireside chats, the people rolled up their sleeves and went to work doing whatever was needed. Men and women of all races worked side-by-side to produce the war materials that enabled the allies to crush the forces of fascism. If they had not—if they had refused to make weapons of war—the Nazi flag might still be flying over the capitals of Europe.
The vast majority of the greatest generation answered FDR’s call because they truly believed that the ideals on which the U.S. was founded are worth fighting for; that there is no moral equivalence between the United States and autocratic systems that do not share its ideals; and that the political identity of the president who is temporarily in office does not alter the fundamental differences between the United States’ constitutional form of government and authoritarian regimes.
Even the greatest generation, however, had its nonbelievers. Henry Ford refused to make airplane engines for British fighter planes—and initially refused to make war supplies for the United States—even though his company was busy churning out trucks for the German government. Though Mr. Ford eventually agreed to build warplanes and other war materials “for the defense of the United States only,” his enduring opposition to supplying U.S. allies was a boon for Nazi propaganda. The head of Ford Motor Company’s division in Germany, Dr. Heinrich Albert, wrote that Mr. Ford’s demurrer “greatly helped” the company’s interests in Germany.
Those interests were important to Ford. The company had invested heavily in Germany, the most thriving economy in Europe, and was the third-largest car company in that country at the time. In the fall of 1937, Dr. Albert had traveled to the U.S. to convince the company to build a new factory in Berlin to mass produce a truck the German government had designed. He made it clear that Ford must comply with the Nazi government’s demands if Ford wanted to stay in business in Germany. Ford delayed making a decision, and its position in Germany rapidly deteriorated. Dr. Albert informed the company that no one in public service or in industries with government contracts in Germany would be seen driving a Ford. So Ford capitulated and agreed to build the trucks as a part of a joint venture with a German company. It was either that or risk losing Ford’s entire investment in Germany.
A few months afterward, German officials attended an event in Detroit and presented Henry Ford with the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the highest honor Hitler ever awarded to a non-German. This act made it clear that what might have been seen as a mere business decision was actually loaded with geopolitical implications.
The Arsenal Of AI
Today the U.S. military finds itself in circumstances similar to those it faced in the late 1930s. Asymmetric conflict in the Middle East and the Great Recession have prompted disillusionment with foreign intervention and a decline in the military’s capabilities. At the same time, a new authoritarian power with expansionist aims—China—is declaring its sovereignty over the exclusive economic zones of its smaller neighbors in the South China Sea by building military outposts on artificial islands throughout the region. In a move similar to the Nazi-Soviet Pact to split the territory of Poland in World War II, Beijing and Moscow have agreed not to challenge each others’ core interests. With Russia on the sidelines, the U.S. is the only nation with the power to challenge China’s imperialist claims in the Pacific, a task that requires substantial military resources.
Those resources include AI and cyber warfare technologies. Just as the mass-production expertise of the auto industry powered the arsenal of democracy in World War II, Silicon Valley’s expertise could empower the U.S. military’s efforts to defend against China’s authoritarian aggression in the South China Sea and in cyberspace. Like their predecessors in the automotive industry, leading companies in Silicon Valley have answered the military’s call for support in developing the defensive capabilities demanded by the 21st century—with the notable exception of Google.
Google chose not to renew an AI contract for a drone project with the Defense Department after 3,100 Googlers—less than 5% of its 70,000 employees—signed a petition asking Mr. Pichai to cancel the project and issue a policy stating that “neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology.” Mr. Pichai later acceded to the petition’s second request and announced that Google will not design or deploy AI weapons or other technologies for the purpose of waging war.
Mr. Pichai’s decision to surrender to a small group of misguided Googlers appears to have encouraged more of the tech elite to oppose work for the U.S. military. The Tech Workers Coalition called Google’s decision “step one” and vowed to fight for other tech companies to follow Google’s lead. In stark contrast to the views of the greatest generation, these tech workers see a moral equivalence between the U.S. and authoritarian governments, as evidenced by their view that “tech companies … shouldn’t build offensive technology for one country’s military.”
An essential part of the heroic role Mr. Knudsen played in World War II was convincing America’s industrial leaders to take part in FDR’s war effort, from the merely reluctant to the recalcitrant, like Mr. Ford. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive officer, has taken on Mr. Knudsen’s role today. Mr. Bezos is willing to say what so many believe, that the U.S. “is a great country and it does need to be defended.” He knows “one of the jobs of the senior leadership team is to make the right decision even when it’s unpopular.” And he knows the U.S. “is going to be in trouble” if big tech companies turn their back on the U.S. Department of Defense.
So does China. The Chinese government was surely as pleased by Google’s announcement as the Nazi government was by Mr. Ford’s. China wants to lead the world in AI and believes the technology will be critical to China’s future “comprehensive national power” and military capabilities. The refusal of Google to help U.S. defense advances China’s plan—and its power—by relegating the United State’s leading AI company to the backbench of this 21st century geopolitical struggle.
Did China play a role in Google’s decision? The question is worth considering. While it’s possible that Mr. Pichai was sincerely motivated by the petition, its nature and timing suggest a more ominous possibility: that Google’s new policy of non-cooperation with the U.S. military is intended to pacify China’s objections to Google’s plans to enter the Chinese market.
Ryan Gallagher, a reporter at The Intercept, revealed in August that Google is planning to launch a censored version of its internet search engine—code-named Dragonfly—in China as part of a joint venture with an unnamed Chinese company. He reported that the project had “accelerated following a December 2017 meeting between Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai and a top Chinese government official,” with Dragonfly’s final launch depending on the Chinese government’s approval. This meeting occurred only a few months after Google secured the drone contract with the U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence.
Anyone who has done business in China knows that it often comes with strings attached, especially when it has implications for China’s strategic interests. Did the Chinese government condition its eventual approval of Dragonfly on Google’s agreement to stop providing AI technology to the U.S. military?
I don’t know the answer to this question, but it’s a fair question to ask. Such a condition would be consistent with China’s stated goals for AI and the timing of the petition, which was publicized by the New York Times just a few months after Mr. Pichai’s meeting with the Chinese government.
It would also be consistent with Google’s financial interests and the corporatist concerns expressed in the petition, which highlights issues of international profitability while giving a cursory nod to pacifism. While it notes the potential for AI to result in lethal outcomes, the petition’s primary focus is the “threat to Google’s reputation.” It even opposes work that would “not ‘operate or fly drones’ and ‘will not be used to launch weapons,’” because, according to the petition, any work on drones for the purpose of U.S. defense “will irreparably damage Google’s [global] brand and its ability to compete for talent [globally]” (including in China, of course).
The petition’s explanation for the lack of such damage to the brands of Microsoft, Amazon, and other tech companies that work for the U.S. military—that Google’s “direct reach into the lives of billions of users set it apart”—further demonstrates its concern about the potential loss of international profits. If Google’s business were limited to the United States, it wouldn’t need to worry about the potential impact of its work on “billions of users.” (The entire U.S. population is fewer than 329 million.)
The use of corporatist lingo and express concern for the bottom line in an ostensibly pacifist petition is enough to make one wonder whether it was circulated by the company’s own leadership as a cynical means of conjuring a graceful exit from its drone contract—one that would not appear connected to its Dragonfly project. Google’s management must be relieved that the petition has spared it significant criticism for abandoning its own country’s defenses when the U.S. is facing an increasingly implacable China. Mr. Ford was (rightfully) branded a “menace to democracy” after he refused to help build the arsenal of democracy, a charge that Google has so far been spared.
Sincere or not, Google should rethink its refusal to help the U.S. bolster its defenses with AI. Google’s refusal won’t prevent China from developing militarized AI any more than Mr. Ford’s refusal to build airplane engines for Britain prevented Germany from bombing London. It will merely make China’s government more powerful while weakening the last bastions of democracy in a predominantly authoritarian world.
Google did not respond to my request for comment.