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Considering Google and Johns Hopkins

By Henry Salem '20, Staff Writer

· Henry Salem

This week, over 3,000 Google employees have signed a petition which protests the company’s involvement in a Pentagon war program which incorporates artificial intelligence to reduce human error and increase accuracy in military drone strikes. While nowhere near a majority of Google’s 70,000 employees have signed this petition, the presence of a petition with substantial support is meaningful. The petition, linked here, directly calls for the cancellation of Project Maven and for Google to stay out of the “business of war” and discontinue all involvement with the development of warfare technology. The company claims that Project Maven is not one that increases the violence capacity of the military, this sentiment has not been well received among Google’s employees who point out the other “war projects” Google plans to work on as well as the negative externalities of working on such projects. Google has always been a corporation with the purpose of promoting good and the advancement of society, hence their motto “Don’t be evil,” but this recent development reminds me of another large enterprise which promotes the improvement of society but engages in similar war projects: Johns Hopkins University.
Johns Hopkins University has long been renowned as an elite academic university which naturally has promoted the advancement and improvement of society’s youth. Under the jurisdiction of this university, however, is the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Coined the “Death Lab” by World War II veteran Phil Berrigan, the Applied Physics Lab engages in the research and development of weapons directly used by the United States military in warfare. As a direct division of Johns Hopkins University, the APL has historically been the subject of many protests by Hopkins students and Baltimore natives alive as they call for the University to discontinue their role in the military ventures which kill many innocent civilians abroad. Since its inception in 1942, the APL continues to operate and assist the U.S. military in the development of weapons of war, and every so often you will see a handful of protesters on the corner of North Charles Street and 33rd Street continuing the sentiments of the previous decades.
In both of these cases there is a common critique: is it just for institutions and corporations whose main purpose is promoting goodness and positive development to assist the U.S. military industrial complex in their endeavours? Both cases here allow us to evaluate different perspectives. While Google’s involvement, they state, is for the intent to reduce human error among drone strikes while not directly making them more violent or dangerous, the APL overtly assists in the development of weapons used to kill people in war. For Google, there is a case to be made that the newest and best artificial intelligence and other technology systems should be applied where necessary for the sake of improvement as long as that application is used for good and not murder, or other negative applications. Whether that be the case with Google and Project Maven is unclear and the analysis of this treads a rather fine line. Whether Google should listen to the concerns of its employees will determine the direction it is willing to take moving forward; it will either to continue and increase its involvement with the United States military or it will end it indefinitely. If it shall continue, it is worth analyzing each venture Google takes on and to see whether these ventures increase violence capacity of the military or if they reduce the possibility of civilian casualty, etc.
For the JHU Applied Physics Laboratory, such an argument cannot be made. The direct involvement by a branch of Johns Hopkins University with the U.S. military is troublesome for an institution that prides itself on goodness and progress. A university should be a bastion of academic excellence rather than a bomb factory for the military. It is hard to justify the continuance of such a Lab given the history of what the U.S. military has done with the weapons developed by the APL. The interests of the university and the APL are at odds. It is not a question as to whether the APL should exist or not, I think it is rather fair to say that it should. Militaries need new technology and weapons and laboratories are required to maintain such; however, the closeness and the affiliation between the University and the APL is counterproductive and contradictory. The ethics of attending a university that facilitates the bombing of foreign militaries are complicated and telling.
Whether or not the decisions of corporations or institutions to support military endeavours changes, it is at least productive that there is a growing discourse surrounding the topic; though this sort of discourse has historically proven to be in vain as the military has seen the continual support from bodies that promote progress such as Johns Hopkins, now Google, and many others. 

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