Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com and the private spacefaring corporation Blue Origin, responded to critics that questioned his willingness to work with the Pentagon this week. In recent weeks, an outspoken opposition from within Amazon has been bolstered by external support, calling on Bezos to cut ties with the Department of Defense due to the employee’s apparent discomfort with working alongside the military industrial complex.
“We are going to continue to support the DoD, and I think we should,” said Bezos. “One of the jobs of senior leadership is to make the right decision, even when it’s unpopular.”
In May, Google backed out of a deal with the Defense Department that would have seen them develop an artificial intelligence system specifically for the purposes of sifting through intelligence feeds to identify elements or people of interest that might warrant further human investigation. In effect, the system would have worked similarly to Google’s image search function, using computers to loosely identify what is depicted in the images and offering up results based on queries. Employees at Google, however, had other ideas. A significant backlash from within the company ultimately pushed Google to sever ties with the Pentagon initiative — though much of that backlash seemed to leverage a loose or entirely incorrect interpretation of the endeavor. Within Google and among many outsiders within the industry, many were convinced Google was building some sort of “Terminator” style targeting system that would be bereft of human input or oversight.
“If ethical action on the part of tech companies requires consideration of who might benefit from a technology and who might be harmed, then we can say with certainty that no topic deserves more sober reflection — no technology has higher stakes — than algorithms meant to target and kill at a distance and without public accountability,” an open letter to Google from the International Committee for Robot Arms Control stated at the time.
Google ultimately yielded to the alarm bells its employees were ringing, but their decision to do so raised some difficult questions about America’s governmental ties to Silicon Valley. If tech companies all followed Google’s lead and made their decisions based on the political whims of its employee base, a number of defense initiatives that rely on commercial partnerships could be in jeopardy. Bezos now says he will not succumb to similar pressure from the employees of Amazon as they compete for a $10 billion cloud computing contract.
“I like this country,” said Bezos. “I know everyone is conflicted about the current politics in this country — this country is a gem. It is amazing, it’s still the best place in the world, it’s the place people want to come, there aren’t other countries where everybody’s trying to get in. I’d let them in if it were up to me. I like them. I want all of them in. This is a great country and it does need to be defended.”
Of course, Amazon isn’t the only Bezos-helmed company doing work for Uncle Sam. His rocket company, Blue Origin, recently secured a $500 million federal contract for the development of a new launch system, even while his other company, The Washington Post, has placed him in President Trump’s crosshairs. Having been the repeated target of presidential tweets himself, Bezos acknowledged that the political atmosphere in the United States it troubling, but doubled down on his belief that technology can be managed in a way that doesn’t lead to ruin.
“I think social media is increasing — unfortunately — identity politics, tribalism. I think the internet in its current incarnation is a confirmation bias machine,” said Bezos. “I worry that some of these technologies will be very useful for autocratic regimes to enforce their role… But that’s not new, that’s always been the case. And we will figure it out.”
Bezos, who was recently named the richest man in America thanks to a reported net worth of $160 billion, went on to say that he encourages Amazon employees to embrace the idea of working alongside America’s defense apparatus, saying in no uncertain terms that the country will benefit through strong governmental partnerships with the private sector.
“I preach inside Amazon, this is going to happen, it’s normal, don’t take it personally,” he said. “You want to live in a society where that happens.”