GZERO Media logo

TECH IN THE TRENCHES

TECH IN THE TRENCHES

Silicon Valley has wandered into a political and ethical minefield. As digital technologies have become pervasive, they’ve also become strategically important: victory on the battlefield will increasingly depend as much on the power of a military’s servers, or its ability to harness emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, as it does on who has bigger guns. As the line between the data center and the combat zone becomes blurred, previously simple decisions for tech companies – like whether to build a new computer system for the Pentagon – have become a lot more sensitive.


Individual US tech giants are making different calculations about how to approach the politically fraught topic of working with the military. Last week,we wrote about Google’s decision to withdraw from bidding on a $10 billion Pentagon IT contract. This week, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos took a different tack: telling the crowd at a Wired event in San Francisco that “if big tech companies are going to turn their back on the Department of Defense, this country is in trouble.”

Here are the different lenses Bezos, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and other tech executives are applying to the problem as they decide whether and how to engage.

Different internal politics: Where a company comes from and whom it employs are bound to influence the decision about whether to get involved in military work. Google’s founders were idealistic Stanford grad students who included the commandment “don’t be evil” in the company’s initial public offering prospectus. Amazon, given its need for warehouses and shipping centers, employs a larger proportion of blue-collar workers, who may be more open to military cooperation than liberal-leaning Silicon Valley types.

Different calculations: Amazon may have seen bidding for the Pentagon deal as a solid trade: The company is already considered to be a leading contender thanks in part to an earlier project it worked on for the CIA, while Google was more of a long shot. Google is considering re-entering China’s search market after an eight-year hiatus, and may want to avoid appearing too close to the US government.

Different ideas about how best to address ethical challenges created by tech:Tech companies have a choice when deciding how best to respond to the ethical challenges posed by technology. Google’s ethical principles bar the company from getting involved in any project involving weapons, or where its artificial intelligence technology is likely cause human harm. Amazon may feel comfortable taking a different approach in this case. As the lines between civilian and military technology continue to blur, companies will increasingly have to choose between withholding their technology from controversial projects or working from the inside to try to shape how their technologies are deployed. Reasonable people can disagree on which approach is likely to lead to more ethical outcomes. These hard questions and tradeoffs are unlikely to go away anytime soon.

Visit Microsoft on The Issues for a front-row seat to see how Microsoft is thinking about the future of sustainability, accessibility, cybersecurity and more. Check back regularly to watch videos, and read blogs and feature stories to see how Microsoft is approaching the issues that matter most. Subscribe for the latest at Microsoft on the Issues.

Not everyone celebrates the US holiday of Thanksgiving, but we've all got something to be grateful for in this awful year, right? So as Americans gather around the table — or the Zoom — to give thanks on Thursday, here's what a few world leaders are grateful for at the moment.

More Show less

Joe Biden has had one of the longest political careers in American history, but his most important act is yet to come. Can decades of experience in Washington prepare him to lead the most divided America since the end of the Civil War?

Watch the GZERO World episode: What you still may not know about Joe


With President Trump and most of the Republican Party still refusing to acknowledge that Joe Biden has won the election, it seems pretty likely that the partisan gridlock that has paralyzed Washington for at least the past four years is not going anywhere any time soon. How will President-elect Biden deal with Donald Trump once the latter is, eventually, out of the White House? And how will Biden deal with Mitch McConnell and a Republican party hellbent on opposing him? "If you get past the theater for a second," suggests Biden biographer and New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos, "you see that there is something deeply different in the relationship that Biden has with McConnell that Obama never had with McConnell." Osnos' conversation with Ian Bremmer is featured on GZERO World.

Watch the GZERO World episode: What you still may not know about Joe

Hong Kong pro-democracy activists plead guilty: The name Joshua Wong has become synonymous with Hong Kong's once-dynamic pro-democracy movement. But the democrats' momentum has all but fizzled since Beijing imposed a draconian national security law back in May, outlawing secessionist activity and criminalizing foreign influence in Hong Kong. Now Wong, who was instrumental in the 2014 pro-democracy "Umbrella Movement," is pleading guilty in a Hong Kong court to organizing and taking part in pro-democracy protests that gripped the semi-autonomous city for much of 2019. He and his two co defendants — all of them in their 20's — have been remanded until sentencing, scheduled for December 2, and are likely to face prison terms of various lengths. Wong, for his part, said he decided to switch his plea to "guilty" after consulting with his lawyer. (Knowing that the trial would mostly be a sham, the trio decided to plead guilty in order to speed up the process, according to reports.) This internationally watched court case comes as Beijing has increasingly cracked down on Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp in recent months, prompting the US to impose sanctions on Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam, and several Western governments to terminate special economic relationship with the city. To date, there have been more than 2,000 prosecutions linked to last year's protests.

More Show less
The 2020 US Election

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's Newsletter: Signal

DOTUS: Dogs of the United States

GZERO World Clips