SILICON VALLEY’S CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTORS

SILICON VALLEY’S CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTORS

It’s not every day that a company leaves $10 billion of potential government business on the table. But that’s what Google did this week when itannounced that it no longer intends to compete for a massive Pentagon cloud computing contract ahead of a Friday bid deadline.


The news has been overshadowed by Google’s decision to shut down its Google Plus social network after a programming flaw was revealed that may have exposed the personal information of nearly 500,000 users. But the Pentagon contract is the bigger story politically, and it sheds light on an area where China may have an edge in its increasingly high-stakes technology competition with the US.

This is part of a pattern… A few months back, I wrote about Google’s decision to withdraw from Project Maven, a Pentagon initiative focused on facial recognition technology, after employees protested that collaborating with the US military ran counter to the company’s values. Google CEO Sundar Pichai later unveiled a set of principles to guide the company’s future work in AI. In explaining its decision not to bid on the $10 billion project to modernize US Department of Defense IT systems this week, Google said it “couldn’t be assured” that its work would be compatible with the ethical principles that bar it from participating in projects that could lead to human harm.

And the US government now has a problem: Google isn’t ruling out all military work. It said it would have submitted bids on (presumably less ethically problematic) portions of the contract if the Defense Department hadn’t insisted on a single vendor for the whole project. Nevertheless, its decision to walk highlights a broader issue: The US increasingly views maintaining a competitive edge in technologies like AI and cloud computing as a matter of economic and national security. But unlike the defense contractors that helped it maintain its technology edge during the Cold War, Silicon Valley isn’t particularly attuned to the goals and priorities of the US government. As Google decides to sit out on building new data centers for the Pentagon, it has also yet to publicly respond to US Vice President Mike Pence’s call last week for it to halt a project to introduce a new, censorship-compliant version of its search technology in China.

China faces no such challenge: The internet giants driving China’s bid to become a global tech superpower aren’t state owned, but they are way more aligned with Beijing’s national priorities. Alibaba, China’s leading cloud company, has been tapped to lead the creation of the “city brain” that will power a huge new smart city under construction southwest of Beijing, which the government intends to use as a showcase for next-generation technologies. In recent years, China’s ruling Communist Party has establisheda presence inside some of the country’s leading tech firms – part of a broader push under President Xi Jinping to assert more control over the private sector. If Beijing ever invited bids on a project to shift its military IT systems to the cloud, it’s almost inconceivable that tech giants with the relevant skills would shy away from the opportunity.

The US has plenty of other assets it can draw on in the race for 21st century tech supremacy, but private sector support for national technology goals is one area where China has a distinct advantage.

Building on more than 15 years of sustainability leadership, Walmart is doubling down on addressing the growing climate crisis by targeting zero emissions across the company's global operations by 2040. Walmart and the Walmart Foundation are also committing to help protect, manage or restore at least 50 million acres of land and one million square miles of ocean by 2030 to help combat the cascading loss of nature threatening the planet.

One of the world's most famous political dissidents may die in a Russian prison this week.

Alexei Navalny has been on a hunger strike since March 31 over the authorities' refusal to let his own medical team examine him after he developed signs of tuberculosis. Now, one of his aides says Navalny is "close to death."

The fate of Vladimir Putin's most prominent critic — who was poisoned last summer, allegedly by state officials, treated in Germany, and then jailed upon his return to Russia — is being closely watched both inside and outside the country.

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How bad is the climate crisis? Every year, the UN's Emissions Gap Report shows a large gap between the trajectory we're on and the trajectory we ought to be on, explains climate journalist Elizabeth Kolbert. "Every decade now is warmer than the decade before. And we're seeing the damage pile up," says Kolbert, whose latest book is Under A White Sky: The Nature of the Future. "We saw the tremendous wildfire season in California last fall. The hurricane season in the Gulf. These are all connected to climate change, and we're just going to keep seeing more of that." She spoke with Ian Bremmer on GZERO World, airing on US public television stations starting April 16. Check local listings.

Watch the episode: Can we fix the planet the same way we broke it?

Ian Bremmer and Bill Maher discussed the global leadership of the United States compared to that of China on a recent episode of Real Time. "The level of corruption in China, the level of corruption in China, even the buildings and the rails you talk about - the average building the Chinese build lasts for 20, 25 years. In the United States, it lasts for 40 to 50. There's a reason why we are still the world's most powerful country," Ian argued. "I'm just saying China's not eating our lunch - that's all."

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As the price of Bitcoin has skyrocketed in recent months, so has the amount of energy that procuring it hogs. Research shows that Bitcoin "mining" now uses 80 percent more energy than at the start of 2020. Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates recently sounded the alarm on crypto, saying that he would not invest in Bitcoin because mining for the digital currency requires huge amounts of energy, much of which is powered by fossil fuels that harm the environment. So where does Bitcoin rank in electricity consumption compared to nations?

Even if the US, Europe, China, and India reduce carbon emissions at the rate they've promised, much climate damage has already been done. That shouldn't stop these and other countries from doing all they can to meet their net-zero emissions targets, but they also better start preparing for a world of people on the move.

Climate change will displace an unprecedented number of people in coming years, creating not just a series of humanitarian crises in many parts of the world, but lasting political, economic, and social upheaval as those of us who live on higher ground try to find a sustainable place for these climate refugees to live.

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi, everybody, Ian Bremmer here, kicking off your beautiful spring week from New York City. A little Quick Take. I thought I'd talk today about Russia, going to be in the news this week. Putin doesn't like it when they're out of the news for too long, certainly plenty going on between the US and Russia right now.

I'd say, first of all, to start off, the relationship is in the toilet. We know this. It is the worst it's been since the early '80s. That was true even under Trump. Trump and Putin personally had a pretty good relationship, but Trump wasn't able to get anything really done for the Russians, because both the Republicans in Congress, key members of cabinet under Trump, massive amount of constraints on what Trump could actually do, whether it's trying to bring Russia back into the G7 or recognize Crimea as a part of Russia, or remove or reduce sanctions. None of that actually got done. In fact, the relationship deteriorated over the four years.

But now we've got Biden and the focus is of course, more on human rights. The focus is more on climate change, which means that Russia as a massive energy exporter and particularly in terms of their influence on Eastern Europe and Western Europe on the downstream for gas delivery, for example, something that Biden is much more focused on. So a lot more pressure on the Russians, and the Russians don't care. Their willingness to hit back and show that the Americans are not willing to take any significant risks to constrain the Russians is also fairly significant. And this is playing out in a number of ways.

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Pakistani radicals vs French cartoons: It's been a tumultuous week in Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city. After widespread protests broke out across the Muslim world late last year after Paris defended French publications' rights to publish satirical images of the Prophet Mohammad, the radical Pakistani Islamist group Tehrik-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), gave Pakistan's government until April 20 to expel the French ambassador, when it had planned nationwide demonstrations. When Prime Minister Imran Khan refused to meet their demands, more violence erupted across the country and authorities arrested the TLP leader — prompting TLP supporters to hit back by kidnapping six state security personnel in Lahore this past weekend. Authorities have now banned the TLP outright and are bracing for more violence in the coming days. France, meanwhile, has urged all of its citizens to leave Pakistan.

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