Defense Lobby Money is The Problem

I’m here in beautiful Washington D.C. for a bit, getting to know the [still stealthy] startup founding team I recently joined. So, when Avengers Endgame premiered, my fellow co-founders showed me the best possible way to see it: The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum IMAX 3D. There, amid the moon lander and many, many giant ICBMs, I prepared myself to gawk at some brightly-colored comic book alien shit, and shuddered with nerdy glee.

Imagine my surprise to find that this theater was, in fact, sponsored (and named) by Lockheed Martin, the notorious purveyor of flying death machines. To me, it marred the splendor of Smithsonian’s temple to American Excellence of days-gone-by with its inscrutable replacement reality: one of unfettered, capitalistic greed.

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while.

Shortly after I left Clarifai over Project Maven, I buried myself in research with regard to the issue of lethal autonomous weapons systems, or killer robots as you know we like to say. I read the seminal work on the issue, one that just won a prominent award for its prose. Its author, in fact, was one of the architects of the current (2012) DoD policy on autonomy in warfare, who admits openly in his book that the policy was intentionally left vague.

Now that he’s left public service, you can find him at the think tank CNAS (Center for A New American Security), where he (and this organization) quickly became the subject of my ire. I went deep, following (and often, inadvertently trolling) as many of them on Twitter as I could find. The lot of them seemed to be tasked with studying Russia and China. They seemed to be hand-selected for their opinions, which bemoaned the advancements of our rivals. To me, they signified The Enemy. These were the people building a case for the use of killer robots, and they nudged forward the chorus of the pro-killer-robots camp:

Russia and China should be feared. They will have killer robots, and so, therefore, should we.

It should’ve been obvious at the time that this group of like-minded individuals were brought together and paid for by none other than… Lockheed Martin. And Raytheon. And Boeing. And Northrop Grumman. And all of the many companies who stand to benefit from escalation, not deproliferation. More weapons, more conflict, more fear, not less.

In what reality, I am begging you, should weapons companies influence the American appetite for war?

This is not new. Eisenhower, who commanded the Allied Forces through World War 2, coined the term “military industrial complex” in his farewell address, warning of their potential to harm society. He said, famously, that “[t]he potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist”. The remedy, to Eisenhower, was that “[o]nly an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together”.

That’s the tech workers movement in a nutshell. A group of people who have risked personal gain and safety to stand up to companies who seek to pursue DoD contracts searching to build the hottest, most dangerous tech on Earth.

These are The People compelling the government to stand down, and pursue peace instead.

But they don’t stand a chance in hell at stopping the war machine, unless someone in Congress does something to get the fucking defense money out of Washington. These workers are out-matched, and out-resourced. For every petition we sign, there are a hundred lobbyists, pockets stuffed with bills, who seek to curb this trend.

Now, I’m not saying that all the lovely people who work at CNAS are bad, or that the CEOs of weapons companies are evil, not at all. There are myriad applications in defense where AI is totally appropriate, and just. But if you’re reading this, and you work for a company that is funded by defense lobby money, then I would ask you to take a long, hard look at the work you’re doing. Ask yourself, is your time being used in the pursuit of the Greater Good? Are you seeking Safety? Or Self-Interest?

Will your brilliance be used to make the world a better place? Or just to sell more jets?

Will autonomous killer robots benefit society? Or will they serve mainly to funnel more tax-payer dollars into the military industrial complex to generate profits for shareholders and executives, at the expense of the people who stand to be harmed (read: killed) by more, and bloodier, war?