*Note: This essay was published in the Wall Street Journal print edition on April 16, 2018. It can also be found online here.
More than 3,000 Google employees have signed a letter to CEO Sundar Pichai, saying that the company “should not be in the business of war.” Specifically, they object to Project Maven, Google’s partnership with the Defense Department on an artificial-intelligence platform for reading data from aerial drones. The letter argues that continued work with the Pentagon would “irreparably damage Google’s brand.”
Although these dissenters may not like Project Maven, there’s a good reason for Google, and the rest of Silicon Valley, to develop partnerships with the U.S. military. Perhaps the biggest is their shared interests. As Alvin and Heidi Toffler once pointed out, “We make war the way we make wealth—with information.” Companies at the technological forefront will inevitably be drawn into the world’s conflicts (and Google, through the combat footage hosted on its subsidiary YouTube, could already be said to be at war). In World War I technological disruption meant tanks, submarines, air combat and chemical weapons. In World War II, it was radar, missiles, aircraft carriers and the atomic bomb.
The next transformational weapons may well be born in Silicon Valley—reusable rockets, quantum computing or true artificial intelligence. The neuroscientist and author Sam Harris has suggested that a superintelligent AI could “perform 20,000 years of human-level intellectual work” in a week.
A century ago, World War I was kick-started by the conventional wisdom that the winner would be whichever side could use railways to get its troops to the front fastest. If AI holds the potential Mr. Harris suggests, then the first country to develop it will have an enormous advantage. “This is a winner-take-all scenario,” he has said. “To be six months ahead of the competition here is to be 500,000 years ahead.” New technologies are always adapted to be used on the battlefield, and AI will be no exception. Silicon Valley’s only real choice is which side it wants to win.
Around the world, democracy is in decline and authoritarianism, particularly in China and Russia, is on the march. Whether the dissenting Googlers know it or not, they want the same thing the Pentagon does: prosperous, secure, liberal democratic societies that support human flourishing. As is often the case, what’s good for business is good for peace.
Ultimately, the perceived gap is more about culture than anything. Americans have drifted apart in many ways, and the widening civilian-military divide is no exception. It isn’t just the haircuts. The Valley is new, edgy, always looking toward a brighter future. The military is old, stodgy, always fighting the last war. Coders and colonels go to different schools, have different career incentives, live different lives. No wonder they have difficulty connecting.
Since the Army closed Fort Ord in 1994, the military presence in the Bay Area has been sharply reduced. One recently established beachhead is the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUx, in Mountain View, which has been called the Pentagon’s “embassy.” But with about 50 staff and a $71 million budget for 2019, it’s too small to make much difference.
DIUx shouldn’t be an isolated outpost. The Pentagon ought to expand ROTC scholarships in Silicon Valley’s feeder universities, while placing midcareer officers in tech internships. It’s a good start that two Google executives sit on the Defense Innovation Board, an important advisory group, but sustaining a real relationship will require a lot more. For their part, Google and other tech companies should try to understand the stories behind the images of global conflicts they do so much to help their users share.
Disagreements are expected in a democracy. But Silicon Valley and the U.S. military share compelling interests, and in the end they’re on the same side. Building a durable, nonpartisan, strategic alliance between them ought to be a priority. We might even start with a Google Hangout.