Jeff Bezos, chief executive of Amazon, directed a rebuke at rival Google over its refusal to work with the US military, revealing a sharp divide that has opened between some of the biggest US tech platforms over the issue.
“If big tech companies are going to turn their back on the Department of Defense, this country is in trouble,” he said at a conference in San Francisco organised by Wired on Monday.
Mr Bezos was speaking just days after Google publicly pulled out of the bidding for a $10bn cloud computing contract to run a large part of the Pentagon’s operations. The search company said that part of its reason for withdrawing was that the work might have contravened the guidelines it had set for the ethical use of artificial intelligence — one of which said that its technology should not be used to kill people.
Amazon Web Services and Microsoft, the two biggest cloud computing companies, have also been angling for the contract.
Speaking on Monday, Mr Bezos said company leaders had a responsibility to make “unpopular” decisions. Arguing for tech companies to support the military, he went on to sound emotional about the US: “This country is a gem . . . there aren’t other countries everyone is trying to get in. This is a great country, and it does need to be defended.”
Pressure from its workers caused Google to come up with the rules on ethical use of AI that eventually led it to back down from the Pentagon contract.
The search company developed its AI rules earlier this year after a storm of protest from employees over its work on developing image recognition software for US military drones.
A letter purporting to come from a group of Microsoft employees last week, and published on the website Medium, also hinted at similar pressures inside the software company.
“Many Microsoft employees don’t believe that what we build should be used for waging war. When we decided to work at Microsoft, we were doing so in the hopes of ‘empowering every person on the planet to achieve more’, not with the intent of ending lives and enhancing lethality.”
Responding to questions about whether some US tech companies had become too powerful and were having a negative effect on the world, Mr Bezos pointed to social media as something that needed to be fixed.
“Having a technology that increases confirmation bias isn’t good. It’s going to lead to more troubles,” he said. However, he defended the use of new technologies, and argued that progress had always relied on fixing unexpected problems that arose from promising advances.
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