Google won’t sell facial recognition tech — but won’t stop using it either

With Google on your phone, in your home, and perhaps soon watching the entire population of China, Google is everywhere but now it’s promised not to watch everyone, which is a small relief.

In a Google blog post discussing the use of AI in medicine in Asia, it was confirmed that the company is not planning on offering facial recognition technology until all welfare and safety considerations were adressed. Since people rightfully have many worries about facial recognition technology, that could mean it’s a while before Google is selling the tech to just anyone.

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One of Google’s biggest potential uses for facial recognition technology was in Project Maven, much to the worry of many of the company’s employees, which Google has a hand in. As of yet, Google hasn’t done anything to suggest it’s stopping this practice.

The DoD revealed last summer that Project Maven, which launched in April, would aim to “deploy computer algorithms to war zones” by the end of the year. Its aim would be to help a workforce “increasingly overwhelmed by incoming data”. However, this is the first time Google’s involvement in Project Maven has been uncovered, after information about the project was apparently widely circulated within the company last week.

In its press release from last summer, the DoD specifically refers to the intention to be able to detect “38 classes of objects” from millions of hours of video footage to assist in the fight against the so-called Islamic State. After Gizmodo approached Google for comment, a spokesperson acknowledged that it’s providing the military with APIs to help it use AI to detect objects in video footage.

Such a partnership obviously raises ethical questions, not least for Google’s employees, but the spokesperson was quick to allay any fears, claiming it’s working to “develop policies and safeguards”.

“We have long worked with government agencies to provide technology solutions”, the spokesperson told Gizmodo. “This specific project is a pilot with the Department of Defense, to provide open source TensorFlow APIs that can assist in object recognition on unclassified data”.

It’s unclear whether Google has been involved in Project Maven since its inception, but at the Defense One Tech Summit last summer, Marine Corps Col. Drew Cukor said: “An algorithmic development contract…is in process – the department will go through a competitive selection process to find vendors that can provide algorithms against DoD data.”

“The big five internet companies are pursuing this heavily,” he also revealed. “Many of you will have noted that Eric Schmidt [then-executive chairman of Google-parent company Alphabet.] is calling Google an AI company now, not a data company.”

Interestingly, Schmidt stood down last month as chairman of Alphabet and now chairs the Defense Innovation Board, a group that advises the DoD on technological matters. To find out more about Google’s involvement with Project Maven, it’s well worth giving the original Gizmodo report a read.

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