When I think about A.I. and weapons development, I don’t imagine Skynet, the Terminator, or some other Hollywood dream of killer robots. I picture the Marines I know patrolling Falluja with a heads-up display like HoloLens, tied to sensors and to an A.I. system that can process data faster and more precisely than humanly possible — an interface that helps them identify an object as a shoe, or an approaching truck as too light to be laden with explosives.
We need tools that enhance situational awareness, provide information that overcomes fear and fatigue, and enable fast, effective and precise combat decisions for both commanders and individuals. If tech companies work with the military, then technologies from applications of A.I. to augmented reality would save innocent lives and reduce suffering.
For me, it’s hard to understand why tech employees would not want to help their fellow Americans survive on the battlefield and accomplish their missions in the safest and least damaging way possible. Not because our wars are a good or bad idea, but because, although not everyone does the fighting, these wars belong to all of us.
While I did choose to dedicate my life to our common defense, I did not and do not choose when and where to go to war. Each time I went to war, it was because my fellow Americans — including engineers in Silicon Valley — chose, through our democratic institutions, to send me there.
Unlike militaries in authoritarian regimes, the American military does not decide to go to war or to kill people. Civilian leaders in Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon — who are wholly accountable to the people of this country — make that decision. It is called common defense because it is shared by all of us.
I think — well, hope, really — that when tech workers protest working with the military, it is because they are opposed to the wars we have engaged in, rather than because they are opposed to reducing suffering in warfare. Drawing that distinction is hugely important: Employees at Google, Microsoft and other large tech companies who believe American wars are unjust, imperialistic or otherwise objectionable are in a strong position to affect decisions about when and where this country uses force. I would encourage engagement on that front, rather than handicapping our common defense and increasing the danger to those who provide it.
Five of the biggest six companies in the world are United States tech companies. With that size comes the opportunity — and ability — to influence; the tech industry has a veritable army of lobbyists in Washington. Instead of pressuring their leadership to withdraw support from the American service member, tech workers could pressure them to add the just application of American power to their list of lobbying efforts that includes retaining extensive access to their fellow citizens’ private data and tightening their monopoly grip on the dissemination of information.