Liz O’Sullivan says she felt lucky when she started working at the artificial intelligence, or AI company Clarifai in 2017. The New York City-based business develops computer systems that do work that normally requires human intelligence.
O’Sullivan’s job combined two of her main interests: technology and morality. But she soon found herself in a difficult situation.
Clarifai was one of several businesses working on a program for the United States military. It is called Project Maven. The companies were asked to develop image capturing and object identification tools for drone aircraft.
After talking with friends and co-workers, O’Sullivan recognized that this kind of technology eventually could be used for autonomous weapons, operated without direct human control.
In January, after talking with a group of Clarifai workers, she wrote to the company’s chief executive officer, Matt Zeiler. She wanted him to clarify whether the technology would be used to create weapons. She also asked Zeiler to take action to ensure a series of ethical measures.
Zeiler later explained at a meeting that Clarifai likely would provide technology for autonomous weapons. O’Sullivan resigned from her job the next day.
“I was very surprised and had to follow my conscience,” she told the Associated Press, or AP.
Zeiler and Clarifai did not answer a request for comment from the AP. But he has said that the company’s Project Maven involvement is linked to its goal of increasing human progress with continually improving AI.
O’Sullivan considers herself part of a growing movement against “unethical” technology. Over the past two years, U.S. tech employees have tried to remake the industry by pushing for more control over how their work is used. They are also calling for better working conditions, job security and higher pay for workers in related fields.
At U.S.-based Amazon and Microsoft, workers demanded the companies stop providing services to Palantir, which manufactures computer software. Palantir provides technology to federal government agencies including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and the U.S. Army.
Amazon employees have urged their company to move to renewable energy and clashed with its chief Jeff Bezos at a meeting for Amazon shareholders.
Last year, many Google employees temporarily stopped working to protest the way their company treats sexual misconduct cases. Google workers also recently signed a letter protesting Project Dragonfly. Dragonfly is a search engine that would follow China’s restrictions on the internet.
Workers at Salesforce, Microsoft and Google have protested their companies’ ties to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, ICE and the military.
Many high-tech workers are paid well and have unlimited vacation time, but they question the effects of their work. Some have joined with unskilled, service and contract-workers, pressing their employers for better work conditions and pay.
Veena Dubal is a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of Law. Dubal has spoken with many tech workers. She says they are feeling sure of themselves because of national and international “existential crises.” They recognize tech companies “have more power than any multinational corporation has had in a long time,” she noted.
The movement for change is especially strong in the San Francisco Bay Area, which was once known for activism and progressive culture. But the area has experienced rising housing costs. The growth of the tech industry has fueled the housing crisis.
The AP says Facebook and Palantir did not answer requests for comment.
An Amazon spokesperson would not comment on employee activism. But the spokesperson noted the Seattle-based company supports renewable energy and provides good pay and humane conditions at areas where its products are stored.
A Microsoft spokesperson said the company, also based in the Seattle area, welcomes comments from its employees and respects differing opinions.
A Google spokesperson did not comment on individual incidents, but noted that punishing a worker for speaking out is not permitted.
“There are many things good about giving employees a lot of voice,” said Google’s chief Sundar Pichaei at a conference last November. “There are decisions we make which they may not agree with.”
Amr Gaber works as an engineer at Google. He was among several technology workers at a July demonstration in front of Facebook’s San Francisco office. The protest was called in support of the company’s food service workers.
There is evidence companies are listening.
Google and Facebook promised to pay contract workers better. Google also changed its policies governing sexual misconduct cases after its employees walked out. And following employee criticism, Google decided against renewing its contract with the U.S. military for work on Project Maven.
Following concerns about technology’s effect on housing costs, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff gave $30 million to the University California, San Francisco. The gift is meant to help research the issue of homelessness. Benioff also donated $6 million to the city of San Francisco last year to help provide supportive housing for the formerly homeless.
Pichai, Google’s CEO, also offered $1 billion to build 20,000 homes over the next 10 years.
These efforts are good for business and for building trust with the public and employees, says Kellie McElhaney. She is a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.
Yet some tech workers say the companies’ efforts fall short. In some cases, employees have said they have been punished or seen others punished after they or others have spoken out.
“We say that tech workers have a lot of power, but tech executives have more,” said Liz O’Sullivan. The best way to make change is through laws governing these issues, she argues.
I’m Dorothy Gundy.
And I’m Pete Musto.
Words in This Story
drone – n. a type of small aircraft that flies without a pilot
ethical – adj. involving questions of right and wrong behavior
conscience – n. the part of the mind that makes you aware of your actions as being either morally right or wrong
renewable – adj. restored or replaced by natural processes
misconduct – n. behavior or activity that is illegal or morally wrong
high-tech – adj. relating to or using new electronic devices and technology
existential – adj. of, relating to, or characteristic of a philosophical belief that centers on the individual's position as a self-determining agent responsible for the truth of his or her choices.
humane – adj. kind or gentle to people or animals