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.

Technology has played a big role in accelerating globalization. While it's our business to advance technology, we also believe that technology should respect and even help protect the world's timeless values. That conviction has led us to announce a new and fourth pillar to Microsoft's AI for Good portfolio – our $125 million, five-year commitment to use artificial intelligence to tackle some of society's biggest challenges. This new pillar will focus on AI for Cultural Heritage. Read more at Microsoft On The Issues.

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This Saturday, July 20, will mark the 50-year anniversary of the day a human being first stepped onto another world. A moment born out of Cold War political pressures, it's easy to forget a half century later how much bitter controversy the project provoked at home and the intensity of the worldwide fanfare that followed its success.

The moon mission's primary purpose was to defeat the Soviet Union. By the time John Kennedy became president in 1961, the Soviet Union had advanced far ahead of the United States in the race for achievement in space. In October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite. A month later, a dog named Laika became the first living creature to travel beyond Earth's atmosphere. In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth, the first human to do so.

In early May, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, spurring Kennedy to announce a far more ambitious plan. On May 25, Kennedy famously pledged that by the end of the decade Americans would go to the moon and return safely to the Earth.

Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, but new President Lyndon Johnson quickly signaled his intention to see the promise kept. The Soviets held their space lead through 1965, by landing an unmanned craft on the Moon.

The moon mission stoked controversy in the United States. A review of polls reveals that only in 1969 did a majority of Americans support the project. Many people argued that the billions spent on a moonshot should go toward the war in Vietnam or to fight poverty in America's inner cities. "No hot water, no toilets, no lights. But Whitey's on the moon," sang musician and activist Gil Scott Heron. It didn't help when a fire during the Apollo 1 mission killed three astronauts and destroyed their space module.

But when Neil Armstrong became the first person to step onto the moon on July 20, 1969, the event took on a life of its own. It was a decade framed by two images of respected TV anchorman Walter Cronkite—shaken to the core on air by the 1963 murder of President Kennedy and then speechless with awe as Americans bounded across the surface of the moon.

A decade that included confrontation with the Soviets in Cuba, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, a failing war in Vietnam, race riots in American cities, and violent chaos at the 1968 Democratic Party convention ended with an accomplishment a quarter million miles away, that was watched live by 94 percent of Americans who owned a TV.

Americans weren't the only ones watching. About 650 million people around the world watched the moon landing live on TV, making the event the first truly global televised event. Nine weeks later, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins began a world tour.

Concerns that planting an American flag on the moon's surface would seem an act of obnoxious nationalism faded as the three men were greeted by overflow crowds in 27 cities in 24 countries over 39 days. An estimated one million people greeted them in Dhaka (then Pakistan) and some 1.5 million turned out in Mumbai (then Bombay).

Fifty years later, moon missions are still a mark of national prestige. Russia, China, India, the EU, Japan, and Israel have all sent probes to orbit the Moon or landed vehicles on its surface. But none of them matches that first "giant leap for mankind."

Next up: Mars? For thoughts on the next space race, click here.

Bonus fact: An iPhone has more than 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that landed Apollo 11 on the moon.