Three years after an employee revolt forced Google to abandon work on a Pentagon program that used artificial intelligence, the company is aggressively pursuing a major contract to provide its technology to the military.

The company’s plan to land the potentially lucrative contract, known as the Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability, could raise a furor among its outspoken workforce and test the resolve of management to resist employee demands.

In 2018, thousands of Google employees signed a letter protesting the company’s involvement in Project Maven, a military program that uses AI to interpret video images and refine the targeting of drone strikes. Google management caved and agreed to not renew the contract once it expired.

The outcry led Google to create guidelines for the ethical use of artificial intelligence, which prohibit the use of its technology for weapons or surveillance, and hastened a shake-up of its cloud computing business. Now, as Google positions cloud computing as a key part of its future, the bid for the new Pentagon contract could test the boundaries of those AI principles, which have set it apart from other tech giants that routinely seek military and intelligence work.

The military’s initiative, which aims to modernize the Pentagon’s cloud technology and support the use of artificial intelligence to gain an advantage on the battlefield, is a replacement for a contract with Microsoft that was canceled this summer amid a lengthy legal battle with Amazon. Google did not compete against Microsoft for that contract after the uproar over Project Maven.

The Pentagon’s restart of its cloud computing project has given Google a chance to jump back into the bidding, and the company has raced to prepare a proposal to present to Defense officials, according to four people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to speak publicly. In September, Google’s cloud unit made it a priority, declaring an emergency “Code Yellow,” an internal designation of importance that allowed the company to pull engineers off other assignments and focus them on the military project, two of those people said.

Advertising

On Tuesday, the Google cloud unit’s chief executive, Thomas Kurian, met with Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., the chief of staff of the Air Force, and other top Pentagon officials to make the case for his company, two people said.

Google, in a written statement, said it is “firmly committed to serving our public sector customers,” including the Defense Department, and that it “will evaluate any future bid opportunities accordingly.”

The contract replaces the now-scrapped Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI, the Pentagon cloud computing contract that was estimated to be worth $10 billion over 10 years. The exact size of the new contract is unknown, although it is half the duration and will be awarded to more than one company, not to a single provider like JEDI.

It is unclear whether the work, which would provide the Defense Department access to Google’s cloud products, would violate Google’s AI principles, although the Defense Department has said the technology is expected to support the military in combat. But Pentagon rules about outside access to sensitive or classified data could prevent Google from seeing exactly how its technology is being used.

Google’s cloud business recently has done other work with the military. Since last year, Google has signed contracts with the U.S. Air Force for using cloud computing for aircraft maintenance and pilot training, as well as a U.S. Navy contract for using artificial intelligence to detect and predict the maintenance needs of facilities and vessels.

Some Google workers believed the new contract would not violate the principles, a person familiar with the decision said, because the contract would enable generic uses of its cloud technology and artificial intelligence. The principles specifically state Google will not pursue AI that can be applied in “weapons or those that direct injury.”

Advertising

Lucy Suchman, a professor of anthropology of science and technology at Lancaster University whose research focuses on the use of technology in war, said that with so much money at stake, it is no surprise Google might waver on its commitment.

“It demonstrates the fragility of Google’s commitment to staying outside the major merger that’s happening between the DOD and Silicon Valley,” Suchman said.

Google’s efforts come as its employees are already pushing the company to cancel a cloud computing contract with the Israeli military, called Project Nimbus, that provides Google’s services to government entities throughout Israel. In an open letter published last month by The Guardian, Google employees called on their employer to cancel the contract.

The Defense Department’s effort to transition to cloud technology has been mired in legal battles. The military operates on outdated computer systems and has spent billions of dollars on modernization. It turned to U.S. internet giants in the hope that the companies could quickly and securely move the Defense Department to the cloud.

In 2019, the Defense Department awarded the JEDI contract to Microsoft. Amazon sued to block the contract, claiming that Microsoft did not have the technical capabilities to fulfill the military’s needs and that former President Donald Trump had improperly influenced the decision because of animosity toward Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s executive chair and the owner of The Washington Post.

In July, the Defense Department announced that it could no longer wait for the legal fight with Amazon to resolve. It scrapped the JEDI contract and said it would be replaced with the Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability. The Defense Department has previously said it hopes to award a contract by April.