Amazon is the latest company to face an employee revolt
over the applications of its technology (We discussed the conflict between Google’s employees and its management over its AI work with the US military a couple of weeks ago
). This time the issue is facial recognition work for law enforcement - particularly salient this week given the images coming from the US’s border detention centres. Microsoft faced similar internal backlash
over its work with ICE.
These efforts may have limited immediate impact, but corporate activism on issues outside the traditional business sphere is becoming an increasingly important part of the political process. In Silicon Valley this will be driven by the fact that talent is both scarce and extremely liberal
. But it’s much broader than big tech. The Parkland school shooting in February led to an extraordinary wave of (largely token) anti-NRA gestures
from a swathe of large companies, from airlines to insurers. And Blackrock suggested in January that the firm would use its enormous assets to push corporates towards greater social purpose (Barrons has a good long read
on the topic).
The long-term implications are unclear, but as it becomes increasingly easy for Twitter outrage to drive corporate decision making, there’s the possibility of important and unexpected outcomes. And, of course, this is likely to be a Western phenomenon. Right now, the ability of Google employees to get a government contract cancelled may not seem like a big deal, but the equivalent in China is inconceivable - and that may have important consequences as AI ethics become increasingly contested.