Google’s decision to pull out of the Defense Department’s (DoD) Project Maven artificial intelligence (AI) initiative without DoD consultation could have potential ramifications on American military and civilian lives, according to former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work.

Work, speaking at the Defense One Tech Summit today, said the decision by Google–spurred by employee concerns about contributing to unethical actions by military drone craft, including the loss of human lives–might end up having the opposite effect and put human lives in danger.

“I fully agree that it might end up with us taking a shot, but it could easily save lives,” Work said of Project Maven. “And that’s why I believe the Google employees have created an enormous moral hazard for themselves.”

Work said that, as he understands it, Google pulled out of the project without holding any meetings with DoD to discuss its exit.

Google made the decision to cut ties with Project Maven following a meeting with employees, with Google Cloud CEO Diane Green announcing on June 1 that the company would not renew the contract with DoD. Thousands of Google workers previously signed a petition in protest of Google’s involvement in Project Maven, and several workers resigned in protest.

“They say, ‘Look, this data could potentially, down the line, at some point, cause harm to human life,’ and I say, ‘Yeah, but it might save 500 Americans or 500 allies or 500 innocent civilians from being attacked,’” Work said.

Project Maven is an AI project that trains computer vision algorithms to classify vehicles and individuals in drone footage. Google employees argued in their petition that “Google should not be in the business of war.” Work argued today that the program was not malicious in nature.

“Project Maven was a pathfinder to demonstrate to operators in the department the power of AI and machine learning,” Work said. “We picked what we considered to be the least objectionable thing, and that is, using computer vision, and teaching AI to look for things on video.”

Work, who stepped down as second in command at DoD last July, further questioned the ethical decision-making of Google in connection with its decision to open an AI center in the country of a chief American technological rival last year.

“Moreover, Google has opened an AI center in China. In China, they have a concept called military-civil fusion,” he said. “Anything that’s going on in the AI center in China is going to the Chinese government and will ultimately end up in the hands of the Chinese military. And I didn’t see any Google employees saying, ‘Hmm, maybe we shouldn’t do that.’”

He further expressed a hope that DoD will be able to change perceptions about the Maven program.

“I was alarmed that it happened. I’m hoping it is not a canary in the coal mine that will start a stampede,” he said. “The department is really focused on this, and I’m hopeful that we’re able to convince people that this will actually save lives, in a big way.”

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Joe Franco
Joe Franco
Joe Franco is a Program Manager, covering IT modernization, cyber, and government IT policy for