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.

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

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Listen: Stanford historian Niall Ferguson joins Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast to talk about the geopolitics of disaster. Throughout human history we seem to be unable to adequately prepare for catastrophes (natural or human-caused) before they strike. Why is that? And as we emerge from the greatest calamity of our lifetimes in the COVID-19 pandemic and look to the plethora of crises that climate change has and will cause, what can we do to lessen the blow?

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

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In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

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When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

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YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

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Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

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