General Intelligence

Amazon’s New CEO Is Shaping How the Military Uses Killer Robots

Andy Jassy is a member of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence

Andy Jassy at WSJ.D on October 25, 2016. Photo source: Steve Jurvetson/Flickr

On July 1, Amazon will have a new CEO. Andy Jassy, who is replacing Jeff Bezos, helped build the company’s cloud business from scratch, cementing its servers as a cornerstone of the internet.

But not all of Jassy’s work has been inside Amazon. The incoming CEO is also a commissioner on the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI), which was created by Congress in 2018 to advise on how best to use A.I. for war and defense.

The commission is now approaching its final report, which will be submitted to Congress as official recommendations from the 15 commissioners. The NSCAI is led by former Alphabet CEO Eric Schmidt, and other commissioners include executives at Microsoft, the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, Google, Oracle, and military venture capital firm In-Q-Tel.

Most recently, the commission made news when its draft final report recommended that autonomous killer robots still be developed and used by the U.S. military. The draft, which is subject to change until it is presented to Congress, says that the U.S. has shown it can use autonomous killing machines in accordance with international human rights laws, and that other countries will not hesitate to build these kinds of robots. Organizations like Human Rights Watch vehemently oppose autonomous weapons, and Google workers organized a massive walkout in opposition of a project that would align the company with autonomous drone targeting and surveillance.

The commission rejects the idea of a ban on autonomous killing robots, but maintains that only humans should be given the ability to launch nuclear weapons.

The report also focuses on A.I. analytics and surveillance technologies that Jassy’s Amazon Web Services organization is intricately involved in developing.

“In military scenarios — against technologically advanced adversaries, rogue states, or terrorist organizations — AI-enabled intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms and AI-enabled indication and warning (I&W) systems will be critical for the kind of advanced warfighting capabilities discussed in… this report,” one line reads.

The commissioners urge that more A.I. and less human judgment is needed here.

“The [Intelligence Community] should prioritize automating each stage of the intelligence cycle to the greatest extent possible and processing all available data and information through AI-enabled analytic systems before human analyst review,” the report says.

That means encouraging intelligence and military organizations to fuse their data into even more enormous datasets, and capitalize on analyzing publicly available information. It’s a strong call for the expansion of digital and physical surveillance by the military across the world.

Although the commission’s final report doesn’t represent the sentiment of any one individual member, Jassy’s alignment with government and law enforcement use of surveillance technology makes it clear that Amazon’s new CEO is bullish on the rollout of A.I. in the military, federal government, and consumer space.

Amazon is in an ongoing legal battle for the $10 billion JEDI contract to build cloud and A.I. infrastructure for the Pentagon. Although Microsoft officially won the contract in 2020, Amazon has put up such a fight that the project might be scrapped altogether, allowing Amazon to compete for whatever comes next.

Amazon is also known for its high-tech worker surveillance technology. In addition to typical security cameras, the company uses thermal cameras, electronic wristbands, and navigation software to track their employees’ every move, according to a report last year from the Open Markets Institute.

This week it was revealed that Amazon is also planning to mount A.I.-enabled cameras to all of its delivery vehicles, which would surveil drivers and be used to give law enforcement access to an even greater network of cameras across the country. The A.I. system demands drivers pull over for 15 minutes if they yawn, CNBC reported.

The surveillance implications of products Amazon builds and sells have also raised concerns.

The Amazon product Ring has formed partnerships with hundreds of law enforcement agencies, which are able to request footage from private citizens’ doorbells with relative ease. The product, which has become massively popular, gives law enforcement unprecedented ability to surveil neighborhoods.

Amazon put a one-year moratorium on selling facial recognition to law enforcement — set to expire in October 2021 — but Jassy has not ruled out selling facial recognition directly to police, saying that there hasn’t been enough evidence of misuse to stop any sales.

“Let’s see if somehow they abuse the technology — they haven’t done that,” Jassy in a 2020 PBS Frontline documentary. “And to assume they’re going to do that and therefore you shouldn’t allow them to have access to the most sophisticated technology out there doesn’t feel like the right balance to me.”

Jassy will continue to serve on the NSCAI until it submits its final report to Congress, and Amazon’s most public rebuke of facial recognition, the one-year moratorium, is set to expire just months into his tenure. But given his history, the future of Amazon looks like more surveillance, more A.I., and less accountability.

Senior Writer at OneZero covering surveillance, facial recognition, DIY tech, and artificial intelligence. Previously: Qz, PopSci, and NYTimes.

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