Response to Ash Carter's Letter to "Young Googlers" (A Conscientious Objector's View)

Dear Ash,

Since you’re not on Twitter, and you most assuredly don’t subscribe to my blog, I can only hope that this response somehow makes it to your inbox. I’m writing this in order for you to better understand the positions of we conscientious objectors who have made sacrifices to avoid participating in acts of war. At the risk of sounding somewhat reductive, I believe I can summarize your opinion letter in just a few moves:

America needs Defense.

We are American.

China is Scary.

While I appreciate this position, I must say that this line of reasoning is in no way novel or new. I’m curious what you hoped to achieve with this Op-Ed, given that this argument is one that is quite common in the discussion of defense work in Silicon Valley. Please, believe me, we know that you think that China (and Russia) are scary. And you’re probably, at least partially, right.

That said, I’d like to offer you a few corrections on our position:

No one is saying that Defense is unimportant.

No one is saying that work on Defense is inherently bad.

No one is saying that work for Chinese companies (read: Military) is without risk.

Not all of us are American.

Not all of us oppose all Defense work.

We do oppose our work’s conversion into offensive use without explicit consent.

And we are not, as you call us, “young”.

To call us “young” is to infantilize and minimize our position. Was this a misstep? Or is it the case that you truly believe that striving for peace is naive? I suppose I should expect this condescension from someone who has spent his life in the pursuit of a stronger military arm, but you should know, for future reference, that your disdain and lack of respect for our stance was made plain in the very headline of the article you claim seeks to change our minds.

Putting aside this demeaning word choice, you neglect to place our objections in sufficient historical context. Conscientious objectors have played an important role in our history. We are responsible for the ends of frivolous conflicts motivated by political gain (Vietnam) or money (Iraq). We play a role that was foretold by Eisenhower in his farewell speech, which I’ve written about previously. He warned that only a fully informed and active public stands a chance to derail the interests of the military-industrial complex who will, without deterrence, seek escalation over deproliferation in the interest of cold, hard profit.

You seem to think we are unpatriotic, when in fact, the opposite is true.

That’s who we are, Mr. Carter, not kids screaming about not wanting to do work, but a force of individuals who see through the motivations behind the drive to build scarier, deadlier weapons, and instead believe in peace. It’s not that we seek to hinder our own defense. We believe our best interests will be achieved through other forums, and long for a day when diplomacy and global cooperation can return to the forefront of international politics.

It’s true. Relations with China and Russia are degrading. We’ve demonstrated to the international community that we can’t be trusted to elect sane, educated officials to office. And in the process of multiple trade wars, we’ve created enemies out of nations who should have been partners.

If you think that the solution to this tension is to invest billions in fully automated machinery that will spark similar investments around the world, I would beg you to revisit your 9th grade history textbook and look in the index under C… for Cold War. During the Cold War, Russia and the US used proxy battlegrounds to fight with one another, donating and selling billions of dollars of weapons to opposing factions of local groups with natural, long-lived rivalries. Some of these factions became radicalized, fueling the future proxy wars (and acts of terror) between different groups within these same nations, and further escalating American fear of the foreign, while truly putting our lives at risk.

You call us naive, but we are not so naive that we fail to see the effects of the American goal of “preserving global dominance”. In pursuit of this goal, America lends support to some of the most oppressive regimes around the world, who commit atrocities with American-made weapons.

To participate in the “increased lethality” of American military is to participate in these humanitarian crises as well.

Autonomous weapons represent exactly this: a terribly expensive, easily scalable weapon for proxy wars that can generate profit and influence for our government at the expense of our rivals. They also mark a paradigm shift in the very nature of war, and nudge us towards a science fiction dystopia that we’d rather not create.

I would ask you to do a little more homework in order to better understand that our positions, while varied, are not naive. They are not ill-informed. They are not willful disobedience, or borne of a misunderstanding of the importance of defense. Some of us feel very comfortable working with the government, and our opinions are more nuanced than you would care to believe. We understand the complexity of things like “dual use” research. We know that DoD will do whatever they want with the technology we sell to you, given that it’s under your complete control when it runs on your servers and not ours. And we know that, while you claim to prohibit full autonomy in weapons systems, the exact opposite is true.

You say you understand why we mistrust you, but clearly, you do not. Until an international ban is installed prohibiting the use of computer vision targeting without a human in the loop, I have vowed never to contribute work in the vein of dual-use object localisation to the DoD. I do this, because I believe de-escalation is the best path to safety.

That’s why I quit my job over Project Maven. Not because I am young.

Liz O'SullivanComment