The Newfound Power of Tech Workers

The Newfound Power of Tech Workers

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — Ashton B. Carter, the former secretary of defense, understands why employees of technology companies have opposed partnerships and contracts with the United States government when it comes to artificial intelligence.

“My first reaction was ‘good on you’ because you are thinking morally and you are thinking about whether what you are doing is right or wrong,” Mr. Carter said at The New York Times New Work Summit in Half Moon Bay, Calif.

The sentiment comes at a time of strained relationships between Silicon Valley technology behemoths and the United States government.

When Mr. Carter was secretary of defense in the Obama administration, he was often considered a bridge builder between the Beltway and the Valley, founding agencies that brought together technologists and policymakers.

He notably issued a directive that stands today. “In any application of machine-assisted weaponry that involves the use of lethal force, there shall be a human being involved in the decision-making,” he said.

But those partnerships have been tested in the past year as protests, pushback and petitions have circulated widely among employees of technology companies.

Last July, Microsoft employees presented their chief executive, Satya Nadella, with a petition signed by more than 300,000 people that called on the company to cancel its contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Last June, Google declined to renew its contract with Project Maven at the Pentagon after extensive pushback from employees. The project used Google’s artificial intelligence software to improve the sorting and analysis of imagery from drones.

And in October, Google executives declined to even bid on another artificial intelligence project at the Pentagon valued at as much as $10 billion.

These protests speak to the newfound power of employees, said Pedro Domingos, a professor of computer science at the University of Washington and the author of “The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World.”

“Employees of tech companies, like Google and Microsoft, have an extraordinary amount of power, which is much different than it was 50 years ago,” he said, adding that technology companies were major players in both World War II and the Cold War. “Often companies want to do things, but then they have to backtrack because they don’t want to displace employees.”

Mr. Carter was supportive of that kind of employee involvement in his conversation with Kevin Roose, a reporter for The Times. “It’s a fair thing to challenge your leaders,” Mr. Carter said. “That’s true for troops, and it’s true for employees at a tech company.”

But, he said, “I find a lot of things more objectionable than helping your country protect you.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by the president of Microsoft, Brad Smith. In October, Mr. Smith wrote his employees a public note on the Microsoft blog regarding defense projects and collaboration with the United States government.

“First, we believe in the strong defense of the United States, and we want the people who defend it to have access to the nation’s best technology, including from Microsoft,” he wrote. “We are not going to withdraw from the future. In the most positive way possible, we are going to work to help shape it.”

But at the New Work Summit, he also shared some instances in which he was uncomfortable working with the government when he had ethical and technological misgivings.

“We’re very excited about facial recognition technology, but we also have concerns,” he said, referencing a partnership he declined to enter with a local police force. “This is a space where there’s been well-documented cases of bias, invasion of privacy and the potential for fundamental democratic freedoms to be placed at risk.”

The way forward has to be in the hands of technology companies like Microsoft and Google and of the United States government, Mr. Carter said. But collaboration is more important now than ever.

“Technology and public purpose is the issue of our time,” he said.

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