Few Silicon Valley companies work with the Pentagon — meet one that’s helping the US build advanced military technology
- Silicon Valley and the US military do not always see eye to eye — with the former trying to keep their products off the battlefield.
- There is still sizable group of companies that argue working with the government can help save lives.
- Hivemapper uses the military's own video footage to quickly generate detailed, three-dimensional maps and automatically detect changes the human eye cannot.
Silicon Valley and the US military are not the chummiest of bedfellows. Companies such as Amazon and Google built their success on a culture of rapid innovation, while the Pentagon is clunky and risk-averse. And recently, a wave of anti-government sentiment has driven several prominent technology firms to cancel major Washington contracts.
But despite pressure from many in the tech world to keep their products off the battlefield, there is a less vocal but still sizable group of companies that argue that working with the government can help save lives, not take them. SparkCognition, for example, works on government artificial intelligence projects.
Or take Hivemapper. Founded in 2015 by former Yahoo executive Ariel Seidman, Hivemapper uses the military's own video footage to quickly generate detailed, three-dimensional maps and automatically detect changes the human eye cannot.
Seidman, who grew up near Chicago and has no military background, believes Silicon Valley and the US government have to work together to maintain America's technological edge — lest authoritarian regimes that don't share US values catch up.
"The Chinese are super aggressive when it comes to machine learning and AI, and they are incredibly hard workers; the Russians are very clever," Seidman said in a recent interview. "If you believe that America is a force for good, and I do… then you want them to have the absolute best commercial technology."
Companies like Hivemapper have become a flashpoint in the debate over the ethics of using advanced new technologies, many developed in Silicon Valley, for government purposes. In April, a group of Google employees protested the company's involvement in Project Maven, the Defense Department's flagship AI program, which uses sophisticated algorithms to analyze drone footage. The employees wrote a letter to company CEO Sundar Pichai arguing that "Google should not be in the business of war." Google ultimately opted not to seek another contract for the work.
Meanwhile, employees at Microsoft protested the software maker's data processing and AI work with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which separated migrant families at the border and placed children in detention centers. And the American Civil Liberties Union has asked Amazon to stop selling a facial recognition software tool called Rekognition to police and other government entities.
But Seidman does not believe those views represent the majority of the tech world, and he argues that some of the recent wave of anti-government sentiment could stem from antipathy toward President Donald Trump.
It's a debate that matters. As military budgets declined and investment in tech companies soared starting in the 1990s, the private sector has gained a huge advantage in innovation. Realizing this, the Pentagon has spent the last few years trying to cultivate deeper ties with firms in Silicon Valley that are building the technologies needed to maintain its battlefield edge.
Hivemapper hopes to give the Pentagon this edge by applying advanced technology to a routine task that can have big operational dividends. Currently, military analysts spend countless hours poring over months of video footage looking for changes that can reveal enemy movements or intentions — a use of analysts that is "wildly tedious and inefficient," Seidman said.
Instead, Hivemapper scrapes data from the military's own video footage to create a detailed, 3D map of a particular area. The company can detect and alert the user to changes on the ground over time; it can pinpoint, say, an enemy truck that wasn't there before or one that has gone missing.
With the technology, analysts can focus on "figuring how how this fits into a larger story. This is really important, mission-critical information. There are potential lives here at stake," Seidman said.
For classified or sensitive data, like that of its military customers, Hivemapper offers a version users host on their own secure networks.
The Pentagon seems to like the product. In three years, Hivemapper has attracted several high-profile customers within the Defense Department and the rest of the government, including US Special Operations Command; the Air Force's 480th Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Wing; and the Navy's Special Warfare Center; along with other organizations.
In addition to its work with the government, Hivemapper also contracts with a number of commercial customers, Seidman said. He declined to give the exact value or the breakdown of the different contracts.
"I think America tries hard to be a force for good in the world. Maybe it doesn't get it right 100% of the time, and I think we should correct those mistakes," he said. "But I think if we can help these really important institutions be more effective, we should do it."