Ash Carter: America needs to align technology with a public purpose
In the past year, Google executives, citing ethical concerns, have canceled an artificial-intelligence project with the Pentagon and refused to even bid on the Defense Department’s Project JEDI, a desperately needed $10 billion IT-improvement program. While stiff-arming Washington, Google has been embracing Beijing, helping the Chinese government develop a more effective censored search engine despite outcries from human-rights groups, American politicians, and, more recently, its own employees. Since the 2016 presidential election, Facebook executives have been apologizing to Congress in public while waging a campaign to deny, delay, and deflect regulation and stifle critics in private.
Former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Google’s Eric Schmidt, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman, Code for America’s Jen Pahlka, and others have been working hard to bridge the divide, bringing technology innovation to Washington and a sense of national service to the tech industry. But their efforts are nowhere near enough. The rift is real, deep, and a long time coming, because it’s really three divides converging into one.
There is a yawning civil-military relations gap between the protectors and the protected. When World War II ended, veterans could be found in seven out of 10 homes on a typical neighborhood street. Today it’s two. Less than half a percent of the U.S. population serves on active duty. A senior executive from a major Silicon Valley firm recently told us that none of the company’s engineers had ever seen anyone from the military.
It should come as no surprise that when people live and work in separate universes, they tend to develop separate views. The civil-military gap helps explain why many in tech companies harbor deep ethical concerns about helping warfighters kill people and win wars, while many in the defense community harbor deep ethical concerns about what they view as the erosion of patriotism and national service in the tech industry. Each side is left wondering, How can anyone possibly think that way? Asked last week what he would tell engineers at companies like Google and Amazon, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford said, “Hey, we’re the good guys … It’s inexplicable to me that we wouldn’t have a cooperative relationship with the private sector.”
There’s a training gap between leaders in Washington, who are mostly lawyers struggling to understand recent technological advances, and leaders in Silicon Valley, who are mostly engineers struggling to understand the age-old dynamics of international power politics. Congress has 222 lawyers but just eight engineers. On the Senate Armed Services Committee, it’s even more stark. Of its 25 members, 17 are lawyers and just one is an engineer. (He’s actually the only engineer in the entire Senate.) In the past, policy makers didn’t have to work that hard to understand the essence of breakthrough technologies like the telegraph, the automobile, and nuclear fission. Sure, technology moved faster than policy, but the lag was more manageable. Digital technologies are different, spreading quickly and widely on the internet, with societal effects that are hard to imagine and nearly impossible to contain. Understanding these technologies is far more challenging, and understanding them fast is essential to countering Russia and China.