Amazon and Microsoft benefited from Google’s decision three years ago to exit drone AI projects for the US Department of Defense.

Pentagon contracts worth $50m were won by both Amazon and Microsoft to help the military identify objects from drone and other aerial footage, Forbes has reported.

It credited Jack Poulson, founder of big tech monitor Tech Inquiry and a former Google AI researcher, for the discovery, after he conducted an analysis of federal government contract records.

Project Maven

Google had announced in June 2018 it would not renew a contract to do artificial intelligence work for the US Pentagon, after internal pressure from staff, some of whom quit Google over the matter.

Almost 4,000 Google employees signed an internal petition asking Google to end its participation in Project Maven.

They felt the project would “irreparably damage Google’s brand and its ability to compete for talent”, and that Google’s involvement in the project clashed with the “don’t be evil” ethos of the search engine giant.

Google’s involvement in Project Maven had aimed to speed up the analysis of drone footage.

Essentially, the search engine giant used machine-learning algorithms and AI to help the US military assess drone footage quickly, in order to distinguish people and objects in drone videos.

But as a result of staff pressure, Google and its parent company Alphabet pledged to end the use of artificial intelligence (AI) for weapons systems.

Pentagon contracts

But Amazon and Microsoft reportedly took over where Google left off.

According to Forbes, contracts discovered by Jack Poulson, show Microsoft landed $30 million and Amazon Web Services $20 million in subcontract awards that were part of three overall deals between the Pentagon and ECS Federal, Google’s partner and reseller for Project Maven.

Forbes noted that the subcontracts did not mention Maven, but others under the ESC deal do, linking them directly with the Pentagon project.

That, according to Poulson, indicates that the tech giants have been working on Maven since they signed those deals.

Forces said that Microsoft started in 2019 and Amazon in 2020.

The contracts are said to end in October this year.

Even if the contracts didn’t specify Maven, the tech giants were asked to provide similar technologies to those Google was set to create before the staff revolt, Poulson was quoted as saying.

Poulson provided his analysis to Forbes ahead of wider publication.

Other contracts

It should be noted that Microsoft has won other Pentagon contracts as well.

One of the biggest ones was in April this year, when it was revealed that Microsoft will supply the US Army with thousands of devices based on its HoloLens augmented reality headset.

That deal is significant as it is worth up to $21.9 billion over 10 years.

Redmond had also been awarded the Pentagon’s $10bn JEDI cloud contract in late 2019, but continued legal challenges from Amazon Web Services resulted in the US DoD cancelling the JEDI contract in July this year.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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