Working Towards a Less Contentious Government-Industry Partnership

By: Tim Greeff

Were it not for the foresight of Pentagon planners and billions of government dollars in investment, Silicon Valley likely would have more in common with Death Valley. Military spending and military requirements helped drive the meteoric rise of one of the world’s premier research epicenters.

“All of modern high tech has the US Department of Defense to thank at its core, because this is where the money came from to be able to develop a lot of what is driving the technology that we’re using today,” said Leslie Berlin, historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University.

The irony is that the engine responsible for creating vast wealth and personal fortunes is now under fire from a small but vocal minority that continue to profit from it.

Over the past several months, a group of employees at Google has battled the company to cancel a contract with the Pentagon for artificial intelligence software that interprets images from unmanned drones.

More than 4,000 Google employees have signed a letter arguing that the company should not get involved “in the business of war.” They demanded Google put in place a policy dictating that the company will never “build warfare technology.” According to press reports, a dozen employees have resigned over Google’s participation in the project.

From the point of view of a non-profit that works to connect American technology companies with the Department of Defense, I can understand the concerns of individuals who don’t want to work on defense contracts. And they shouldn’t be forced to do so.

However, a minority of workers shouldn’t dictate the outcome for a company or its industry or the fate of U.S. national security. We need to consider who is ultimately harmed when companies with cutting-edge technologies refuse to partner with the Department of Defense: our nation’s military forces, both here and on the front lines overseas.

This is not a blind appeal asking technology companies and their employees to shut up and salute the flag. Rather, it is a call for a rational review of the risks and benefits of working with a partner that has a lot to offer the technology community.

The military’s role in seeding groundbreaking technologies that are the backbone of the technology community, such as the internet and voice recognition software, is legendary. What is less well known is the degree to which the military needs the technology community.

In fact, the Pentagon – and the nation’s security — need the technology community more today than it has at any time in the past half century. As Ellen Lord, the under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said in congressional testimony last December, “Inarguably…the current pace at which we develop advanced capability is being eclipsed by those nations that pose the greatest threat to security, seriously eroding our measure of overmatch.”

Translated from Pentagon-speak, China and Russia are rapidly catching up to the United States, thereby eroding our military’s technological edge. Robert Work, the former Obama deputy defense secretary, said the aggressive challenge posed by China’s press for artificial intelligence, for example, “is a Sputnik moment.”

To stay ahead of our potential foes, the Pentagon is reaching out to the technology community, looking for new partnerships in Silicon Valley and beyond.

In one example of how the military is seeking innovative tech companies, The U.S. Army Combined Arms Center recently reached out to companies in the fields of simulation, gaming, augmented reality and virtual reality looking for help with a challenge it faces.

Currently, the Army relies on 1980s and 1990s technology to conduct multi-site training sessions. It wants to use the latest secure, cloud-based technologies to train soldiers, whether they are stateside or on the front lines of Afghanistan.

In May, more than 100 companies, large (Dell) and small (PhaseSpace), attended a four-day brainstorming event in Austin, Texas. Companies participated because they saw a problem they wanted to help the military solve, and a potential $10 million prototype contract if they come up with a viable solution.

As the Army event underscores, the partnership between the U.S. military and tech companies is alive and well. Despite the backbencher effort among some at Google, most tech companies understand that the military has important technology needs and that the nation’s security is paramount.

Sec. Work and the Center for a New American Security recently launched a task force of academics, industry leaders and former government executives with the goal of assessing how government and tech companies might forge a less contentious relationship on artificial intelligence pursuits. That is a laudable goal – to set down the parameters of a strong and vital working relationship that balances privacy and other concerns with national security concerns.

It could serve as a template across innovation industries and ensure that the government-tech partnership remains vibrant for decades to come.

Greeff is founder and CEO of National Security Technology Accelerator (NSTXL), an Arlington, Va.-based non-profit company.