Former Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt says Silicon Valley will form 'AI principles' for working with the government

Key Points
  • As chairman of the Department of Defense's "Innovation Board," Eric Schmidt spoke at a House of Armed Services Committee meeting on Tuesday afternoon.
  • In response to a question about how the DOD and Silicon Valley could work together, he said the tech industry would like come up with a set of shared "AI-principles."
  • Meanwhile, more than 3,000 Google employees have signed a petition urging the company to pull out of one of its government contracts
Eric Schmidt, chairman of Alphabet Inc.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

As Google employees fret about becoming engaged in "the business of war," Alphabet board member Eric Schmidt thinks the tech industry will likely form a shared set of "AI-principles" to guide how Silicon Valley works with the Department of Defense.

Schmidt, chairman of the Department of Defense's Innovation Board, spoke before a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. He was responding to a question about how to overcome hesitance from the private sector about working with the department on artificial intelligence projects.

Since Google revealed in March that it had partnered with the DOD to develop AI to analyze and interpret drone videos, more than 3,000 employees signed a letter urging Google CEO Sundar Pichai to pull out of the initiative, called "Project Maven." Although Google publicly said that the project was scoped for "non-offensive purposes," employees worried that once the technology was built, the military could use it to help launch weapons.

Referencing those protests, as well as hesitance from other companies that the DOD has talked to, Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., asked Schmidt how the department could assuage skepticism from the tech sector.

Schmidt declined to talk about Google specifically, and said that he had been removed from any Project Maven deliberations, but predicted that ultimate Silicon Valley would have a collaborative reckoning on how to handle military contracts.

"My sense of the industry is that it's going to come to set of agreement on AI-principles — what's appropriate and what's not — and my guess is that there will be some sort of consensus from key industry players," he said.

Google itself is reportedly drafting its own set of ethical principles to guide decision making before expanding Project Maven or taking other contracts. Meanwhile, Google, Amazon, Oracle, and others are all competing for an enormous cloud deal with the DOD.

Through the course of his testimony, Schmidt also said that any way that the government could "make it easier" for tech companies to work with it, the better.

"If DoD is to become "AI‑ready," it must continue down the pathway that Project Maven paved and create a foundation for similar projects to flourish," he said in his written testimony.

Schmidt served as Google's CEO from 2001 through 2011, and as the chairman of Google and its successor company Alphabet until he stepped down from that role in January 2018. He remains on Alphabet's board.