The new disarmament advocates?

January 24, 2019

Over the past year, tech-workermovements have illustrated the rising awareness of this group of their role—forgood and ill—in technology’s impact on society. Just look at the employees’protest against Google’s involvement in the U.S. Pentagon’s Project Maven.

ProjectMaven, also known as AlgorithmicWarfare Cross-Functional Team, launched in April 2017 to improve the ability ofthe U.S. Department of Defense to analyze drone footage.  After employee protests and the resignation ofdozens of employees, Googledecided not to renew this DoD contract when it expires in 2019.

For their actions inpromoting “socially beneficial” AI, the nearly 4,000 Google employees wererecognized by the Arms Control Association as the 2018 ArmsControl Persons of the Year.

But not all support the risingconsciousness of the tech workers.

JenniferPahlka, founder of Codefor America, believes that tech workers should engage in work to support themilitary, as it is better to have “sharp knives” than “dull knives.” Accordingto Pahlka, “having poor tools doesn’t make us fight less; it makes us fightbadly.”

The New York Times Opinions editor SusanFowler has identified what she calls “tech’s anti-government stance”as one of three biggest challenges for tech in 2019. After providing examplesin which employees of U.S. tech firms asked their companies to stop providing servicesand products to the U.S. government, she asked:

The United States is engagedin cyberwarfare with China and Russia, in which tech companies areinevitably involved. Employees of these same tech companies are pushing theiremployers to drop contracts with the United States government. If they succeed,who is going to win the war?”

Ben Tarnoff, a technology columnist for The Guardian and founding editor of Logic magazine, calls Fowler’s characterization of the tech-workermovement “inaccurate and irresponsible.” While Tarnoff acknowledges that U.S.President Trump’s words and actions have been a “catalyst” for workermobilization, he believes that the current conversation is not narrowly political,but reflects a wider concern about the effects of technology on society. And he warns that security discourses on “cyberwarfare”will be used to silence tech employees. So, while Fowler and Pahlka suggestthat the tech workers are making the wrong ethical and moral decisions, Tarnoffdisagrees.

Surely, awareness and activismby an educated citizenry are exactly what we need now.

Emerging technologieswill have, and are already having, a profound impact on global security. Therising consciousness among developers of different technologies about theimpacts of technology on all aspects of our lives and on warfare should bewelcomed. We all need to recognize that much new tech is dual-use and could bedangerous in certain contexts.

To achieve arms controland disarmament, the world needs individuals who understand the potential andlimitations of the new tech. It is the technical experts who can challenge, forexample, the overly rosy portrayals of the potential of artificial intelligencein war zones depicted by some experts and countries with advanced militaries.

Our society shouldembrace the tech-workers movement as a positive contribution to ongoingdiscussions of the impacts of emerging technologies. We need their voice at theUnited Nations, where tech workers are becoming more active in discussions onautonomous weapons. We need their expertise in the work that civil societyorganizations do to achieve disarmament.

We all have much to learnfrom others. Disarmament and humanitarian advocates can offer importantinsights into conflict trends and the impacts of war on civilian populations.The techies can explain how certain systems function, how software code isdeveloped, and the technical limitations of these systems.

Let me make this loud and clear: Tech employees, engineers, and scientists are welcome and necessary in disarmament advocacy circles. Disarmament advocacy is one way to put the #TechforGood #AIforGood into practice. It also saves lives. So, let’s hear those voices.

Illustration credit: Jim Cooke (Gizmodo)

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