SDS: Google sets example for CMU

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

In the summer of 2018, Google employees organized to end their company’s contract with the U.S. military’s Project Maven, which is “intended to help the Pentagon use artificial intelligence to analyze drone footage” for potential targets and other objects of interest. But, as reported last week by WESA, an offshoot of Project Maven was later “quietly” picked up by Carnegie Mellon researchers and folded into Carnegie Mellon’s Army AI Task Force.

Next week, many Carnegie Mellon students will attend the Technical Opportunities Conference, an annual career fair featuring hundreds of companies, offering lucrative job opportunities and stable futures. Hopefully, the lines to talk to Google reps will be longer than the lines for Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, and Honeywell, three companies that manufacture weapons for the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, raking in billions of dollars thanks to deadly conflict. Unlike those companies, Google’s reps will be able to tell Carnegie Mellon students: “Hey, if you’re creeped out by your university’s connections to the military and intelligence community but still want to build tech, come work at Google!”

What does it say about our university that we are less ethical than a top employer of Carnegie Mellon graduates? And what would it look like for Carnegie Mellon to develop the kind of internal democracy that Google employees leveraged to end their company’s Project Maven contract?

Ironically, Carnegie Mellon touts its Artificial Intelligence program’s “strong emphasis on ethics and social responsibility,” while the new dean of the School of Computer Science stresses that ethical computing is “already a part of the education” of computer science students. Given what we now know about Project Maven, the inclusion of ethical content in CS degrees feels like a weak PR gesture meant to head off criticism of the college’s deepening relationship with the military-industrial complex.

What's done in the name of Carnegie Mellon — the technology created here and touted constantly in press releases as evidence of Carnegie Mellon’s “vital [U.S.] economic prosperity and national security” (as President Jahanian wrote in a recent e-mail) — is done in all of our names. In fundraising calls to alumni, student callers are asked to stress the importance of donating to “increase the value of a degree from Carnegie Mellon.” But how is the value of a Carnegie Mellon degree affected when our university contributes to the death and destruction generated by the U.S. military?

It gives us no pleasure to conclude that Carnegie Mellon’s administration is complicit in U.S. wars. After all, this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon: Carnegie Mellon wasn’t nicknamed “Carnegie Military University” at the height of the Iraq War for nothing. That war, and the various other doomed post-9/11 adventures in the Middle East, directly killed 272,000 people, indirectly killed hundreds of thousands more through infrastructure destruction and forced migration, and cost taxpayers at least $4 trillion dollars, according to a Reuters report. The toll taken on human lives, societies, and rights is disturbing enough, but the money wasted is worth reflecting upon. Just consider: that much money could wipe out the $1.5 trillion in current student debt more than twice over.

What do we want our university to be? What do we, as current students, faculty, and staff — as future graduates — stand for? Do we want to help and empower the poor and marginalized, make the world a better place, or continue to pass off critical ethical decisions to military agencies and policymakers whom we should not and cannot trust? These questions are unavoidable.

As Google employees argued in their successful petition against Project Maven: “We cannot outsource the moral responsibility of our technologies to third parties… This contract puts Google’s reputation at risk and stands in direct opposition to our core values. Building this technology to assist the US Government in military surveillance — and potentially lethal outcomes — is not acceptable.”

So, again we ask: is Carnegie Mellon less ethical than Google? And when will our administration begin to involve more of us in these consequential moral and political decisions? Student and faculty government, organizations, staff unions, and other campus bodies should come together around an agenda of internal democracy at Carnegie Mellon. None of this is going to change until we find ways to play a more active, more effective role in the future of our university.

Wilson Ekern, Copy Manager of The Tartan, is also a member of SDS at Carnegie Mellon University.