Intent on abiding by its founding motto, “Don’t Be Evil,” Google announced in June that it would not participate in a U.S. military program seeking to apply artificial intelligence to drone technology. This week it has been reported that Google is attempting to reintroduce its flagship search engine into China, albeit with censoring and surveillance filters demanded by the Chinese government. This does not compute.
Eight years ago, Google co-founder
pulled the company out of China, telling The Wall Street Journal that “in some aspects of their policy, particularly with respect to censorship, with respect to surveillance of dissidents, I see some earmarks of totalitarianism.” That was true then and is more so now. China is famously using advanced technology to erect an Orwellian surveillance state.
But like other companies, Google has concluded it cannot sacrifice access to China’s market, which is now dominated by the Chinese search-engine company Baidu. That means conforming itself to China’s rules on social control of the internet. Google hasn’t decided whether to proceed with this search-engine initiative, but clearly no license will be granted unless the company agrees to give Chinese censors access to the site’s vast internal information.
That Google would seek re-entry to a country whose efforts at totalitarian control are increasing while the company ostentatiously separates itself from a U.S. defense program is more than a contradiction. It is naive. What kind of world does Google think we live in?
The June decision to withdraw from the Pentagon’s AI program was accompanied by an 8,000-word statement of Google’s ethical principles on the use of artificial intelligence. Well, yes, the intersection between AI and human autonomy is complicated.
But no one paying attention to China’s ambitions doubts that it is developing artificial intelligence for domestic political control and sophisticated military applications. Its Communist Party leaders are doing so to gain a decisive advantage over China’s military competitors, primarily the United States and its citizens.
A recent Journal article detailing China’s high-tech military programs quoted former People’s Liberation Army Maj. Gen. Xu Guangyu: “China will not ignore or let slip by any dual-use technology, or any technology at all, that might improve the ability of our military to fight, our awareness, or our ability to attack.” In other words, the U.S. finds itself in an intense military competition with China. If American tech companies deny their own country access to advanced knowledge, the U.S. will fall behind.
The good news is that most U.S. technology companies, including in Silicon Valley, understand these realities and are contributing to the U.S. effort to defend itself. Google and its hyper-political employees stand out for seeming to spend a remarkable amount of time navel-gazing and composing codes of conduct.
Sergey Brin had it right in 2010: China’s success at lifting its people out of poverty is remarkable. Its determination to deploy American knowledge to control the Chinese people remains abhorrent.