The workers had no idea they were contributing to Project Maven, the Pentagon’s AI-assisted military drone.
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It appears Google has been using its services to assist more than just its end users. According to a recent report by TheIntercept, Google has been feeding the Pentagon data to help build a controversial drone that can distinguish between certain objects on the ground. The data fed is reportedly the combined effort of millions of workers that Google hired from a company called Figure Eight, which is a machine learning company that "transforms unstructured text, image, audio, and video data into customized high-quality training data" for AI. The workers had no idea they were indirectly contributing to the Pentagon’s drone project.
The data collected by Google comes from a working model called human-in-the-loop, where workers online, who earn as little as $1 per hour, help machine learning algorithms distinguish between real-world objects and understand the environment better. The tasks for which Google hired these workers involved labelling objects in satellite images to help AI tell the difference between objects like trees, buildings, vehicles, etc. This data was then reportedly fed to the Pentagon and incorporated into Project Maven, the Department of Defense initiative involving the use of military drones.
Project Maven has been at the centre of a controversy for a year now. In April last year, over 3,100 Google employees signed a petition demanding that Google stop assisting the Pentagon with the project. They presented it to the company’s CEO, Sundar Pichai. A couple of months later, Google announced that it would not renew its contract with the government because of “internal pressure”, which meant the contract would end sometime in 2019. The real rub in all of this is that the workers who helped build the AI system were not informed of the Pentagon’s or Google’s plans. They had no idea what they were helping build.
“Contributors to the Figure Eight platform are not given who the data will benefit. Usually, they are given a reason for why they are doing a task, like, ‘Draw boxes around a certain product to help machines recognize it,’ but they are not given the company that receives the data,” a former Figure Eight contributor had said in a statement to TechSpot. The online tech publication also reports that it has yet to receive a comment from Google or Figure Eight on the matter. In any case, it seems like a case of foul play by the US government and the American search engine giant.
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