Media Studies’ Peter Asaro Urges Google to Withdraw from Controversial Pentagon Contract

Three months ago, Google employees learned about the company’s decision to provide artificial intelligence to Project Maven, a controversial military pilot program that aims to help the Department of Defense (DoD) use machine learning to classify images captured by drones.

Prompted by ethical concerns over the program, 4,000 Google employees signed a petition opposing the partnership, and about a dozen resigned in protest. They argue that human beings — not algorithms — should be at the helm of military operations.

Drafting an open letter in support of Google’s employees, which anyone is welcome to sign, was Peter Asaro, associate professor of Media Studies and vice chair and co-founder of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control.

Echoing the concerns of the employees, Asaro warns of a future in which AI is used to create lethal weapons that would then decide to kill completely free of human control.

“We agree with and support those employees and we are joined by more than 700 [the number has since climbed to 800] academic researchers who study digital technologies,” Asaro and the co-authors of the letter, Lucy Suchman and Lilly Irani, wrote in a recent Guardian op-ed. “We support their demand that Google terminates its contract with the US Department of Defense (DoD), that the company commit not to weaponize the personal data they collect, or support the development of autonomous weapons. We also urge their executives to join other artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics researchers and technology executives in supporting an international treaty to prohibit autonomous weapon systems.”

The letter has attracted 800 (and growing) academics and researchers who work in digital media, communications, computing, information technologies, and social sciences. Notable signatories from The New School include faculty members Maya Wiley, Shannon Mattern, Trebor Scholz, and Claire Potter; other notable signatories include Noam Chomsky, Yoshua Bengio, and Lord Anthony Giddens.

In The Guardian op-ed, Asaro, Suchman, and Irani ask Google to:

  • Terminate its Project Maven contract with the DoD.
  • Commit not to develop military technologies, nor to allow the personal data it has collected to be used for military operations.
  • Pledge to neither participate in nor support the development, manufacture, trade or use of autonomous weapons; and to support efforts to ban autonomous weapons.