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Tech Companies Eager to do Business with the Pentagon

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By Debbie Gregory.

Silicon Valley and the U.S. military have built their successes on completely different cultures: tech companies have a culture of rapid innovation, while the Pentagon is slow-moving. And recently, a wave of anti-government sentiment has driven several prominent technology firms to cancel major Washington contracts. But much to the disappointment of many of their employees, there are still many Silicon Valley companies that are eager to sell artificial intelligence (AI) products to the U.S. military.

Despite pressure from many in the tech world to keep their products off the battlefield, there is a less vocal but still sizable group of companies that argue that working with the government can help save lives.

The concept of lethal AI is just one area where hundreds of tech workers are trying to influence corporate behavior and ethics by signing a pledge not to work on lethal autonomous weapons. A group of Google employees protested the company’s involvement in Project Maven, the Defense Department’s flagship AI program, which uses sophisticated algorithms to analyze drone footage. Microsoft has pledged to have a dialogue with the Defense Department and policymakers about ethical issues surrounding AI, including autonomous weapons.

But companies such as Intel, IBM, GE, Oracle and Raytheon have expressed interest in providing AI for the military.

The Pentagon has spent the last few years trying to cultivate deeper ties with firms in Silicon Valley that are building the technologies needed to maintain its battlefield edge.

“If big tech companies are going to turn their back on U.S. Department of Defense, this country is going to be in trouble,” said Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Bezos’ eagerness to cooperate with the Pentagon stems from his desire to keep America safe. “I know everybody is very conflicted about the current politics and so on,” he said, and added, “This country is a gem.”

By Debbie Gregory.

Faced with criticism over how it awarded a contract to move computer systems to the Internet cloud, the Pentagon has slashed a nearly $1 billion contract down to no more than $65 million, while also scaling back the scope of the work. The revision will limit its use to only U.S. Transportation Command rather than the entire Defense Department.

The contract awarded to Herndon, Virginia-based REAN Cloud—an Amazon Web Services partner, has come under scrutiny by those who feel that the procurement wasn’t handled properly, charges that Pentagon officials strongly denied.

Pentagon spokesman Col. Robert Manning said that after reviewing the contract, the Defense Department decided that “the agreement should be more narrowly tailored” so that Rean would build a prototype service for a single agency, the U.S. Transportation Command, instead of many agencies within the military.

Oracle filed a bid protest with the Government Accountability Office last month that called the procurement “an egregious abuse” of the procurement process for a contract that it charged was “shrouded in secrecy.”

Additionally, the Pentagon was criticized because the original contract was awarded by the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx ) which was created to procure the technology of Silicon Valley-type companies that mostly shy away from Pentagon work. DIUx is fast-moving to provide non-dilutive capital to companies to solve national defense problems, usually in under 90 days.

The procurement, a follow-on to a smaller competed contract, was awarded under an “other transaction authority,” a way for the Pentagon to procure goods and services quickly without being subject to the bureaucratic federal acquisitions process.

Critics of the “other transaction authority” process say such arrangements are not competitive and insufficiently transparent.