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Tech Workers Now Want to Know: What Are We Building This For?

Linked by Paul Ciano on October 16, 2018

Kate Conger and Cade Metz, The New York Times:

Jack Poulson, a Google research scientist, recently became alarmed by reports that the company was developing a search engine for China that would censor content on behalf of the government.

While Dr. Poulson works on search technologies, he had no knowledge of the product, which was code-named Dragonfly. So in a meeting last month with Jeff Dean, the company’s head of artificial intelligence, Dr. Poulson asked if Google planned to move ahead with the product and if his work would contribute to censorship and surveillance in China.

According to Dr. Poulson, Mr. Dean said that Google complied with surveillance requests from the federal government and asked rhetorically if the company should leave the United States market in protest. Mr. Dean also shared a draft of a company email that read, “We won’t and shouldn’t provide 100 percent transparency to every Googler, to respect our commitments to customer confidentiality and giving our product teams the freedom to innovate.”

The next day, Dr. Poulson quit the company.

“You can think you’re building technology for one purpose, and then you find out it’s really twisted,” said Laura Nolan, 38, a senior software engineer who resigned from Google in June over the company’s involvement in Project Maven, an effort to build artificial intelligence for the Department of Defense that could be used to target drone strikes.

All of this has led to growing tensions between tech employees and managers. In recent months, workers at Google, Microsoft and Amazon have signed petitions and protested to executives over how some of the technology they helped create is being used. At smaller companies, engineers have begun asking more questions about ethics.

In June, more than 100 students at Stanford, M.I.T. and other top colleges signed a pledge saying they would turn down job interviews with Google unless the company dropped its Project Maven contract. (Google said that month that it would not renew the contract once it expired.)

“We are students opposed to the weaponization of technology by companies like Google and Microsoft,” the pledge stated. “Our dream is to be a positive force in the world. We refuse to be complicit in this gross misuse of power.”

Paul Ciano

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