More than two years ago, Googleâ€™s CEO Sundar Pichai promised to no longer use his companyâ€™s artificial intelligence expertise to develop weapons. But that hasnâ€™t stopped Googleâ€™s parent company, Alphabet, where Pichai is also CEO, from investing in a couple of companies that are getting into the business of war.
In June 2018, Google CEO Sundar Pichai made a sweeping promise. In a blog entitled â€˜AI at Google: our principles,â€™ Pichai said Google would not develop artificial intelligence for â€œweapons or other technologies whose principal purpose or implementation is to cause or directly facilitate injury to people.â€
Pichaiâ€™s pledge hadnâ€™t come out of the blue: earlier that year, employees protested the companyâ€™s participation in Project Maven, a Department of Defense (DOD) initiative worth a reported potential $250 million a year – and $15 million over 18 months to Google – to use AI to identify buildings and other targets â€œof interestâ€ to the military from drone footage. Insiders at the Mountain View-based giant fumed. More than three thousand signed a letter to Pichai, writing, â€œWe believe that Google should not be in the business of war.â€ Google eventually let the contract lapse.
Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and Alphabet, has been having to put out another fire of late, after the departure of AI researcher Timnit Gebru. In a letter to staff he wrote that it was “a painful but important reminder of the progress we still need to make.” CHRISTIAN PEACOCK FOR FORBES
Pichai may have promised Google AI wouldnâ€™t harm people, but he said nothing about Googleâ€™s parent company Alphabet. In late 2019, Pichai became CEO of Alphabet while still retaining his job as CEO of Google â€“ and through investments by Google and its venture capital wing, GV (formerly Google Ventures), Alphabet is still very much in the business of war.
GV positions itself as an â€œindependent, return-driven fundâ€ with $5 billion under management. But the Mountain View, Calif.-based firm was spun out of Google back in 2009 and itâ€™s all Alphabet money. As it says on its website, â€œGV is the venture capital arm of Alphabet,â€ and Alphabet is the firmâ€™s â€œsole limited partner.â€ (GV and Pichai declined repeated requests for comment on this story.)
Both Google and GV have minority stakes in companies supplying military surveillance tools. In 2016 GV acquired a stake in Palo Alto-based Orbital Insight and in 2017 Google took equity in Planet, headquartered in San Francisco. Together, in the last three years, the two firms have won at least $30.5 million in Defense Department contracts, alongside deals with space intelligence agencies, for projects that could be said to â€œdirectly facilitate injury.â€
Orbital is a software company founded by former Google Books director James Crawford. Its AI sifts through masses of satellite images, drone footage and aggregated smartphone location data from 800 million devices across the world with the goal of telling customers whatâ€™s physically changed on Earth and why it matters. The uses are myriad. Orbital could, for instance, track North Korean nuclear sites or the Taliban building training camps. But it also has peaceful uses like monitoring deforestation in the Amazon and mapping watersheds or sprawling urban slums. It gets its satellite footage from a range of providers, including Planet, its Google-portfolio sibling.
Planet, which was founded by NASA engineers, has 150 imaging satellites in orbit, claiming they make up the worldâ€™s largest constellation of Earth-imaging satellites. Planetâ€™s big sell is the ability to quickly and cheaply send up small satellites into space. It has Doves – about the size of a loaf of bread – and Skysat satellites – about the size of a minifridge. Both are capable of beaming high-quality imagery back to earth. The startup was valued at nearly $1.8 billion after a 2018 funding round, according to PitchBook data. Google acquired 16% of the company, after selling its satellite imaging subsidiary Terra Bella to Planet in 2017, which has now diluted to 13%.
Both companies work with the U.S. military and various intelligence agencies. Planet has contracts with space intel agencies, including the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, a DOD combat support agency. Orbital bid for work on that controversial Project Maven, according to two former employees.
Government contracting records show that between February 2017 and July 2020 Orbital was given $10 million to develop AI technology for a Defense Department program called Datahub. The Datahub would take satellite imagery and â€œtrack enemy patterns of life 24/7, all weather and day/night across large areas of responsibility at machine speed,â€ according to Pentagon budget documents. The resulting intelligence would be used to speed up a DoD tactical approach known as Find-Fix-Finish-Exploit-Analyze (F3EA), whereby a target is found, tracked, captured or killed, interrogated and then an analysis done to determine future opportunities. Intelligence derived from Datahub would also be used to automate the Defense Departmentâ€™s weapons deployment â€œfor timely precision strikes.â€
The investments threaten to be problematic for Google and Alphabet â€“ even when done at armâ€™s remove through its â€œindependentâ€ venture capital wing. Google has repeatedly stumbled trying to live up to the expectations of its idealistic workforce. There was Project Maven and there was Project Dragonfly in 2017, when Google planned a search tool that came with built-in Chinese censorship. Then there were internal protests over contracts with the immigration agencies helping enact the Trump administrationâ€™s policies in 2019. Just this December, the exit of Google researcher Timnit Gebru, who was investigating potential racial bias in AI, led to a public fracas. Gebru claimed sheâ€™d been fired for posting frustrations about the retraction of one of her papers. More than 2,500 Google employees have signed a petition demanding their employer be transparent about Gebruâ€™s termination.
A Google spokesperson said: â€œWhen we do our due diligence before any investment, we work with entrepreneurs to understand their tech, business plans and team, and, where appropriate, look for consistency with the AI Principles we announced in 2018.â€
GV has been involved in every Orbital fundraising round since the satellite imagery company was founded in 2013. GV participated in a $9 million Series A round in 2015 and then in 2016 led a $15 million equity investment as part of the Series B. It has invested in all four of Orbitalâ€™s raises, the most recent being a $50 million Series D in November 2019. In all, Orbital has raised $130 million, most recently at a valuation of $480 million, according to PitchBook data. Forbes estimates GV has a stake of roughly 13% in the startup, which Forbes named as a Next Billion-Dollar startup in 2017. Sequoia is the largest outside stakeholder at over 20%, according to a source familiar with the investments.
From early on, Orbital has worked on humanitarian projects. With the World Bank it tries to quantify poverty by counting new buildings, roads and agricultural land in less-developed countries. It kept tabs on the worldâ€™s forests with the World Resources Institute. And as recently as last year its AI was monitoring the expansion of Chinaâ€™s â€œre-educationâ€ camps in the Xinjiang region.
But the big money in the geospatial game resides in government coffers and in addition to its altruistic work, Orbital has forged numerous ties with U.S. intelligence and military agencies. In-Q-Tel, the CIAâ€™s investment arm, provided $5 million of financing (via a warrant) in 2015. Shortly after a handful of In-Q-Tel employees moved over to Orbital and the fundâ€™s managing partner George Hoyem became a board observer, according to Crunchbase. Among Orbitalâ€™s advisors for federal government business is Robert Cardillo, former director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. And in late 2019, it signed a deal with Booz Allen Hamilton, the Beltway consultancy with deep ties to the intelligence community, to supply its tools at speed via Boozâ€™s Modzy, a kind of app store for government AI services.
Not everyone inside Orbital was happy about its ties to the military. Orbitalâ€™s own ethics pledge states, â€œWe do not develop or condone any intent to harm humanity, the environment, and/or society.â€ According to one former senior staffer, Orbital said its tech wouldnâ€™t be applied to things like â€œbomb targeting,â€ but â€œonce you identifyâ€¦a building, [the government] is gonna do whatever they want with it.â€ Though they didnâ€™t have issues with the ethics of working with the military, they felt it â€œsilly to make up these fake rulesâ€¦ just call it what it is.â€ The ex-employee added that the company went from â€œsaving chimpanzees in Indonesiaâ€ to â€œfinding targets in Afghanistan.â€
A former software engineer added that the defense work was â€œa big problem because there’s a lot of money in doing things that some people might consider unethical.â€ The ex-staffer said that in Silicon Valley itâ€™s â€œhard to attract employees here to a company that’s going to be… dependent on the U.S. military.â€ They acknowledged that the business had tried to steer clear of â€œthe bad stuff, but if youâ€™ve borrowed $120 million from other people, you’re kind of pressured to deliver on it.â€
Orbital declined to provide any executives for an interview. A spokesperson for Orbital said â€œa few employees… expressed concern over government work,â€ but added that the company has an ethics board, led by founder Crawford, that reviews each contract. When a government wanted to fly drones past ships and use Orbital for facial recognition, for instance, Orbital declined to do the work, as it doesnâ€™t track individuals. The spokesperson added that it had â€œsuccessfully completedâ€ its work on the Datahub program, but declined to offer more detail or comment on any possible breaches of its own ethics stance.
Regarding its overall Pentagon work, the spokesperson added: “Orbital Insight’s work with the U.S. Department of Defense helps the agency zoom in on the physical world and monitor global activity so they can avoid surprises and proactively address critical situations. Precise change detection and an accurate picture of what’s happening on the ground are essential for keeping our country safe and secure with effective security responses and communication.”
Orbital may no longer work on Datahub (former senior employees say the company lost the contract), but the startup continues to actively seek out government work. Official records show that since 2018, Orbital has spent $300,000 on Congressional lobbying, talking to lawmakers about the uses of geospatial AI. And in July 2020, it signed its biggest publicly-known government contract to date: a $22 million deal with Customs and Border Protection (CBP), details of which were obtained by Jack Poulson, an ex-Stanford math professor who used to work at Google until he resigned over the Chinese search engine plans, and now runs big tech research outfit Tech Inquiry. The contract documents, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, indicate that CBP is using Orbital tools to analyze data coming from drones, surveillance balloons and satellites that monitor radio frequency signals. According to contract records, Orbitalâ€™s border work will mix classic â€œgeospatial surveillanceâ€ with search and rescue aid, the latter covered by a separate $3 million contract. An Orbital spokesperson said it was a research and development project with CBP looking â€œto prevent loss of life for people stranded along the southern border and provide officers with more situational awareness in remote areas.â€ A CBP spokesperson said the â€œprimaryâ€ use case was for search and rescue.
Planet has raised even more money than Orbital, above $400 million since it was founded in 2010. Its Doves satellites, which catch rides into orbit on the backs of launches from the likes of SpaceX and Rocket Lab, monitor Earthâ€™s entire landmass and large chunks of its oceans, including coastal parts of the South China Sea and the Persian Gulf, every day.
Like Orbital, Planetâ€™s business is a mix of humanitarian, private market and government contracting. Amongst its government projects are $20 million in National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency satellite imagery contracts. In the last three years, itâ€™s completed a mix of studies and pilots with the Navy, the Air Force and the Army, looking at how best to use its satellite imagery across land and sea, in contracts worth more than $15 million.
Planet is hoping to significantly expand its collaboration with U.S. intelligence in the coming years, by bidding on the lucrative EnhancedView contract. Managed by the National Reconnaissance Office, EnhancedView contractors provide the U.S. government with commercial satellite imagery. For the last ten years the bulk of the EnhancedView money has gone to satellite and geospatial intelligence provider Maxar Technologies, which makes $300 million a year from the deal. Currently Planetâ€™s constellation of Skysats and Doves is being tested to see how they compare with Maxarâ€™s satellites. â€œWe believe we will be able to offer an excellent level of performance and service to the U.S. government,â€ the Planet spokesperson added.
Will Marshall is one of three NASA scientists that founded Planet. It started out as Planet Labs, but changed to Planet, whilst its government-focused business is Planet Federal, based in Washington D.C. ERIC PIERMOINT/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
As with Orbital, three former senior employees say there was some internal turmoil at Planet over its work with the military, claiming a small number of staff left as a result. â€œInitially, they were very altruistic. They were launching satellites for the benefit of everybody in the world,â€ said one former staffer. Â â€œThen they discovered that actually, the only people that really want to pay the big money for satellite data is governments.â€ Another ex-employee said they thought Planet was against doing intelligence work but the pivot was a â€œturn offâ€ and one reason they left.Â
Planetâ€™s spokesperson said there was no such shift, that its first customers were with military and intelligence agencies, and it has â€œno internal record of any employee ever leaving Planet because of our work with governments.â€ It pointed Forbes to the companyâ€™s ethics code in which it says: â€œOur partners may not use our products to further actions that sponsor harm, abuse, aggression, violence, or other violations of human rights.â€ The company also has an Ethics Committee that â€œreviews potential or existing customer engagements for ethical issuesâ€ and it has nixed potential private and public sector contracts because of moral concerns. Planet declined to provide any information on what those contracts were.
A former Planet employee focused on government work said that the company was walking â€œa fine line.â€ â€œWhat their [ethics] statement says and then what the government does with the thing that they sell them is not really in their prerogative to control,â€ they added.
All these tricky ethical quandaries havenâ€™t stopped Pichaiâ€™s Alphabet companies from investing further in the geospatial market. GV is also backing a less-proven moonshot, participating in $40 million and $35 million rounds in 2018 and 2020 for SpinLaunch. The startup has a novel idea for getting satellites into orbit, using what amounts to a giant, spinning arm that hammer-throws satellites into space. Thanks to Alphabetâ€™s money and a 2019 $2.5 million contract with the DoDâ€™s Defense Innovation Unit Small Responsive Launch program, SpinLaunchâ€™s as-yet unproven tech could soon be responsible for helping the Pentagon deploy even more military spy satellites to monitor the planet.
When Pichai laid out his companyâ€™s AI principles, he took on a utilitarian tone in describing their protean limits. â€œWhere there is a material risk of harm, we will proceed only where we believe that the benefits substantially outweigh the risks, and will incorporate appropriate safety constraints,â€ he wrote. But itâ€™s not within Googleâ€™s remit to apply those unspecified constraints on the companies in which it invests or their militaristic customers.