Can an emerging technology be developed for peaceful uses, while suppressing any potentially detrimental or otherwise negative applications? The engineering profession itself is in general agreement that the answer is no, it cannot.
Nevertheless, this does not deter us, as individual members of the profession, from serious consideration of the specialties we pursue or the jobs we undertake with respect to their potential uses.
The issue gained headlines recently when a Google algorithm was designated for use in Project Maven, a Defense Department effort to identify enemy objects in video. The Google motto, “Don’t Be Evil,” was cited in a memo to its management, in which more than 3,000 of its employees requested that Google stay out of “the business of war.”
The Pentagon had begun its engagement with companies of Silicon Valley in 2015, through a unit named Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx). Christopher Kirchhoff, who had helped lead DIUx from 2016 to 2017, reacted to the Google memo in a 2018 New York Times op-ed column, “Silicon Valley Must Go to War.” While agreeing that Google’s engineers’ aspiration that Google never “build warfare technology” or “outsource the moral responsibility” for using technology is a noble goal, he noted that “it would be morally convenient if technology for war could be cleaved so cleanly from technology for everything else.” But he concluded, it cannot.
Kirchhoff also noted that “technology circulates between government and industry, between times of peace and war, in ways no corporate policy can turn on or off.”
Somewhat poetically, he concluded that “Technology often springs forth in unseen ways, wreaking havoc in some cases and providing salvation in others. Those who uncork the proverbial genie cannot control its future by decree.”
The rationale for the DOD’s DIUx operation was summarized by Kirchhoff as reflecting “the prosaic reality that most innovation today—unlike that of two generations ago—takes place in the commercial sector, not government labs.” He believes the only way the military can continue protecting the United States and preserving relative peace worldwide is by integrating the newest technology into its systems.
The Engineer’s Choice
It is sometimes possible for portions of our citizenry to forget that the U.S. Department of Defense is not only concerned with defensive technology but the technology of offense as well, and that often the two are inseparable, and may even be one and the same.
Today, both novice and experienced engineers are often faced with the choice of working for a company engaged principally in serving the civilian marketplace or, alternatively, one serving the military. Even those engineers who readily accept employment with a military/defense systems contractor may nevertheless face unexpected concerns. The experience of one IEEE Life Fellow is a case in point. He worked for a major military research company in the mid-1960s on R&D of directional control systems and the testing of navigation lock-on systems for target destruction. When the company offered him the opportunity to join an elite project team, he was told the project’s objective was “annihilating people,” and that, furthermore, targets were not military personnel, but families of the “enemy.” He admits to agonizing over the decision, but turned down the “opportunity.”
While both the Google engineers and their fellow workers are to be commended for expressing their concerns to management, history demonstrates that in a democracy, decisions to define the customer base rest with company management, and can be overridden only by an elected government, as happened in World War II, when the U.S. became the “Arsenal of Democracy.”
However, lacking a situation of all-out war, the choices of for whom to work and the nature of the work remain with us as individuals.
- Shane, S.; Metz, C.; and Wakabayashi, D., “Pentagon Deal Creates Schism Within Google,” The New York Times, 31 May 2018.
- Kirchhoff, C., “Silicon Valley Must Go to War,” The New York Times, 3 May 2018.
- Larnothe, D., “The Pentagon has tried to get Silicon Valley on its side for years. Now it’s part of the air war against ISIS,” The Washington Post, 19 June 2017.
- Impagliazzo, J., “The ‘Annihilating People’ Problem,” SSIT Newsletter, June 2017.
- The Defense Innovation Marketplace, http:/ defenseinnovationmarketplace.mil/DII-Defense-Innovation-Initiative.html/ retrieved 20 May 2018.
- Christiansen, D., “The Future of Automated Warfare,” IEEE-USA Insight, 26 June 2017.
- Singer, P.W., “A World of Killer Apps,” Nature, September 2011.
- Finn, P., “A Future for Drones” Automatic Killing,” The Washington Post, 19 September 2011.
- Lichterman, A., “Automatic Warfare, Weapons Modernization, and Nuclear War Risk,” presented at the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference.
- Davis, L.E.; McNarney, M.J.; Chow, J.; Hamilton, T.; Harting, S.; and Ryman, D., Armed and Dangerous? UAVs and U.S. Security, RAND Corp., 2014.
- Russell, S., “Take a Stand on AI Weapons,” Nature, Vol. 521 May 2015.
Donald Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrumand an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.