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Amazon, Microsoft won $50m in military contracts after Google's Project Maven exit, report

The two tech giants reportedly took on contracts that helped the military to identify objects from drone footage

Amazon and Microsoft were awarded Department of Defense (DoD) contracts worth $50 million to aid the military in identifying objects from aerial surveillance footage, a year after Google's decision to abandon a similar contract following staff protests.

That's according to contracts found by Jack Poulson, founder of big tech monitor Tech Inquiry, and a former Google AI researcher, who claims Microsoft earned a reported $30 million and Amazon Web Services $20 million, as reported by Forbes.

In April 2018, a leaked memo revealed internal turmoil over Google's decision to provide TensorFlow programming kits to the DoD to support efforts to improve image recognition technology in military drones, in a deal known as Project Maven.

Following backlash from employees, who criticised the company's involvement with the military and argued that such contracts would lead to irreparable damage to the brand, Google announced just months later it would be scrapping its deal with the DoD.

Then Google Cloud CEO Diane Greene initially defended the company's involvement in the project, however she later added that the decision to sign had been made at a time when the company was aggressively pursuing military work and that it would now take a more ethical approach to AI going forward.

However, according to Poulson, Microsoft and Amazon were later awarded subcontracts that were part of three overall deals between the Pentagon and ECS Federal, Google’s partner and reseller for Project Maven.

The subcontracts do not explicitly mention Maven, but others under the ECS deal do, leading Poulson to believe the tech giants have been working on the project since the deals were signed - Microsoft since 2019 and Amazon since 2020.

Poulson added that even though the contracts didn’t specify the project, the tech giants were asked to provide similar technologies to those Google was asked to create.

Specifically, Microsoft was set to provide tools that could analyse data from “full motion video” as well as “software and algorithms to automate and augment the analysis of Wide Area Motion Imagery (WAMI) data”, which refers to images taken while airborne.

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Amazon was also asked to develop “models for object detection and classification” for “full motion video” and infrared data. IBM was contracted too, to provide “statistical reasoning models, combined with artificial intelligence” in a $1.7 million deal. The contracts for Amazon and Microsoft ran up until October 2020, although it’s unclear if the companies are continuing to work on them.

IT Pro has contacted Microsoft and Amazon for comment on the research.

In April, Microsoft signed a $22 billion deal to supply the US Army with HoloLens devices, which were set to be used both in training and in combat scenarios. The 120,000 HoloLens 2 augmented reality headsets will be used by combat troops so they could fight, rehearse, and train using a single platform.

Dozens of Microsoft employees wrote an open letter protesting the contract with the army, stating they refused “to create technology for warfare and oppression”.

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