Eric Schmidt is credited with turning an innovative software startup into the world’s most recognizable technology company. Can the executive chairman of Alphabet — better known as as the holding company that grew out of Google — pull off a similar feat for the Pentagon?
The Defense Department on Wednesday announced that Schmidt will head up the new Innovation Advisory Board, part of the Pentagon’s effort to become just a bit more like Silicon Valley. The board will consist of 12 executives, handpicked by Schmidt and defense secretary Ash Carter, who have “excelled at identifying and adopting new technology concepts,” according to a Pentagon press release.
The goal: give department leaders “independent advice on innovative and adaptive means to address future organizational and cultural challenges, including the use of technology alternatives.” That last item is key. In other words, before you decide to build that incredibly expensive jet, maybe talk to someone who isn’t trying to sell you that jet.
The announcement marks a new chapter in the strange but friendly rivalry between the Pentagon and the West Coast tech community, particularly Google.
On the surface, DOD and Google / Alphabet are worlds apart. One is a consumer-facing tech company founded on the very cuddly motto “Don’t be evil.” The other drops Hellfire missiles. Yet both share a nascent obsession in robotics and artificial intelligence (and other areas of information technology). That overlap has led to some interesting interactions.
In, 2013 Google purchased robotics research outfit Boston Dynamics, creator of the famously loud and kickable Big Dog robo-mule and the two-footed Atlas robot. In 2014, the company bought a Japanese robotics maker named SCHAFT. Both companies were key players in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA’s, Grand Robotics Challenge to create a humanoid disaster robot, with Boston Dynamics providing Atlas to several teams as a platform. This essentially made Google both a competitor and a contactor in the race. Google soon announced that it was pulling team SCHAFT out of the $2 million competition, a clear signal that the company intended to forgo military money. Officials added that they would honor Boston Dynamics’ existing defense contracts but weren’t looking to ink any new ones.
That’s not the only instance where Google has taken department-funded tech and turned it into something else. Flash back to the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, when a team from Stanford, led by AI luminary Sebastian Thrun, built a self-driving car that could traverse 150 miles of Mojave desert with no human guidance.
Ten years pass, and yet the military cannot find a way to move robotic convoys from vision to battlefield reality. Thrun went on to essentially create the self-driving car program at Google. The company expects its investments in self-driving technology to become profitable by the end of the decade, primarily in the form of tech licenses to automakers.
Where the Defense Department footed the prize money and then stalled out on implementation, Google found a developed technology, hired the guy who built it, and will soon be making the profits.
When pressed, military technology leaders insist that they have no hard feelings about Google acquiring companies that the Defense Department has an interest in. At the 2014 Defense One Summit, DARPA director Arati Prabhakar discussed her hopes for better partnership with the company, and the technology sector in general.
Google “and we are worried about the problems of the world,” she said. “They’re going to try and go make money on it—that’s what they do as a private company—and we’re going to try to deal with it from the perspective of national interests … I want to harvest what they and many, many others are investing in and driving technology forward.”
Yet it’s Google that has shown itself to be the more agile technology harvester, especially from the Defense Department, a clear example of why the input of people like Schmidt is so urgently needed.