It’s easy to forget where you are from.
Whenever the Reagan administration appointed an ambassador to a country, Secretary of State George Schultz would spin a globe and say, “point to your country.” Inevitably, the ambassadors would point to the country they were going to be posted to. Schultz needed to remind them: “Your country is the United States.”
Today, some high-tech workers seem to have forgotten where they are from.
Until recently, Google was involved in the Pentagon’s “Project Maven,” which would use artificial intelligence to help control drones and make the country safer. That mission didn’t sit well with some Googlers. More than 3,000 of them signed letters urging Google management to pull out of the program.
Apparently enough Google employees felt Google had betrayed one of its core mantras, “Don’t be evil.” Not only is the company following their lead and cancelling the contract, it’s also drafting a policy that could keep it out of the military space entirely. “I don’t know what would happen if the media starts picking up a theme that Google is secretly building AI weapons or AI technologies to enable weapons for the Defense industry,” Google chief scientist Fei-Fei Li wrote in an internal memo obtained by the press.
Well, I do know what would happen. Americans would know Google is a good American company that wants to help our military protect our homeland. Instead, as columnist Andy Kessler put it in the Wall Street Journal, “Google engineers’ refusal to develop precision technology means more civilians will die or the military will be reluctant to use force.” That’s not good for anybody.
Google, meanwhile, is also going out of its way to cooperate with an American enemy, the Chinese government. The tech giant is helping build Beijing’s “Great Firewall” that prevents people in the communist country from accessing information, blacklisting “websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest.” So much for Google’s “Don’t be evil” mantra. Yes, it’s easy to forget where you are from. And this mindset isn’t confined to one high-tech company.
“Outside Google, petitions from organizations like the Tech Workers Coalition and International Committee for Robot Arms Control have also attracted signatures from the broader tech and AI community,” writes Khari Johnson at Venture Beat. That brings us around to the cloud. The American military is finally ready to enter the 21st Century and begin storing its data in the cloud, rather than on mainframe computers. But there’s a problem: it wants to award a massive contract to just one company, and give it control of all the military’s information for years to come.
There are many reasons it would be a mistake to put a single company in control of all the military’s information. It would:
- Reduce competition in the cloud space, perhaps making it impossible for other providers to ever catch up.
- Cause a security risk, by making the information vulnerable to hacking.
- Remove incentives for the single provider to innovate as the years go by.
But perhaps the biggest concern should be that we can never be sure that, once Amazon (or anyone) wins this contract, the company’s employees will remember what their country is. Just as Googlers seem to think they’re better than members of the U.S. military, what happens if Amazon employees decide next year (or next decade) that they don’t want to help the Pentagon protect its secrets? They could easily wreck the cloud project from the inside, or leak information to the press, or worse, collaborate with our enemies.
All that is painful to say. And yet we’re seeing something similar playing out in real time.
The solution is simple: break up the cloud computing contract. Award pieces of it to many competitors; there are, after all, plenty of clouds to choose from. Over the course of years, if one provider proves better, it can win more of the business. But don’t pick a single winner up front and lock its dominance in for a decade. Having many cloud providers will provide the competition our military needs, so it can always find reliable Americans to protect its data.
It’s easy to forget where you’re from. And just as easy to forget what made your success possible. None of these companies would be where they are today having been launched in any other country. The United States of America is the only place innovators like Google and Amazon can startup and grow to be what they are today. Those freedoms are backed up because of the strength of our military.
These tech giants would do well to remember their roots. Us every day Americans are a patriotic breed and the free market still works. We know who you are and we’re watching the choices you make. Not supporting our military is un-American and unacceptable.
Joe Messina is host of the nationally syndicated The Real Side/with Joe Messina, he is a former tech industry executive and analyst for Johnson Controls, Entex Technologies and American Express.